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Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee

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Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge

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Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

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Amir Khusrow
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Marshall McLuhan
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From placental mammals and primates to the first humans.............................. 12
Down on the ground................................................................................................ 14
Australopithecines and their brains....................................................................... 14
Habilines and erectines ......................................................................................... 16
Two million years ago ...................................................................................... 17
Upgrading the habiline-erectine brain .............................................................. 18
Neoteny, cooperative behaviour and individual autonomy .............................. 19
Neoteny and playfulness ............................................................................... 20
The Pleistocene ice ages ................................................................................... 20
Cultural and genetic evolution in the Pleistocene ................................................ 21
Memory and learning............................................................................................ 23
Learning as a process of percept formation ...................................................... 24
Feelings and emotions........................................................................................... 25
Evolution of feelings-emotions......................................................................... 26
The choosing brain........................................................................................ 28
Emotions and the social environment ............................................................... 28
The further evolution of non-verbal communication............................................ 31
The importance of mimesis............................................................................... 31
Especially mimetic story-telling ....................................................................... 32
Summary of developments in non-verbal communication ............................... 35
The transition to spoken language ........................................................................ 36
Mimesis was the springboard............................................................................ 36
Acquiring a vocal apparatus.............................................................................. 36
Origins of words and sentences ........................................................................ 37
Beginnings of syntax..................................................................................... 38
Where do new words come from? ................................................................ 39
Why did language evolve?................................................................................ 40
Speech improves thinking................................................................................. 41
Uncritical thinking ........................................................................................ 43
Speech accelerates information accumulation .................................................. 43
Speech reinforces tribalism............................................................................... 45
Selecting for language skills ................................................................................. 46
How the brain-language relationship evolved .................................................. 46
Why a lateralised brain?................................................................................ 47
Who gets selected?............................................................................................ 48
Sexual selection ............................................................................................ 48
Baldwinian selection..................................................................................... 48
Group selection ............................................................................................. 51
Humans of the late glacial to early post-glacial period ....................................... 52
After the Mt Toba eruption ................................................................................... 52
New behaviours .................................................................................................... 54
Material technologies........................................................................................ 54
Symbolism and representation.......................................................................... 55
Trade and migration.......................................................................................... 55
Aggression between groups .............................................................................. 56
Social organisation and regulation.................................................................... 57
From tribes to chiefdoms .............................................................................. 58
New minds ............................................................................................................ 60
Primitive thinking ............................................................................................. 60
Animism and magic ...................................................................................... 61
Cognitive and representational abilities........................................................ 63
Dependence of the individual on the group ...................................................... 65
Implications of a weak sense of self ............................................................. 66
Reflections on hominid evolution .......................................................................... 67
When is a species vulnerable to extinction? ......................................................... 68
Adaptation......................................................................................................... 69
Specialised versus generalised adaptation ........................................................ 71
Specialised adaptation................................................................................... 71
Generalised adaptation.................................................................................. 72
Extending one’s niche................................................................................... 73
Constraints and trajectories in phylogenesis......................................................... 75
Some rules of phylogenetic development ......................................................... 76
The importance of allometry and heterochrony for evolutionary trajectories .. 77
Selection for increasing body size ................................................................ 78
The hominid experience........................................................................................ 79
Improving adaptedness ..................................................................................... 81
Evolutionary ecology of hunter-gatherers ........................................................ 82
Cultural lift-off.............................................................................................. 84
Cultural evolution and population trends...................................................... 86
Is this story remarkable? ................................................................................... 87
Bye-bye Pleistocene, hullo Holocene ............................................................... 89
The Idea of a Universal Evolutionary Process ..................................................... 93
Evolution as History ............................................................................................. 94
The Biological Eon ............................................................................................... 95
The Cultural Eon................................................................................................... 96
The Neolithic and Urban Revolutions................................................................... 97
12 000 BP-6000 BP The Neolithic Revolution.................................................... 97
6000 BP-3000 BP The Urban Revolution ........................................................... 99
The Cognition-consciousness Revolution............................................................ 102
The Problem of Consciousness ........................................................................... 102
Clarifying the Consciousness Experience....................................................... 103
The Consciousness-generating Process .......................................................... 106
The awareness system................................................................................. 107
The speech system ...................................................................................... 109
The arousal (limbic) system........................................................................ 111
Is consciousness an epiphenomenon? ......................................................... 113
Consciousness is not Cognition ...................................................................... 114
3000 BP-2000 BP New Religions, New Thinking, New Societies .................... 116
Contribution of Writing to the Cognition-consciousness Revolution............. 118
Stages in the Evolution of Consciousness-cognition ...................................... 120
The pre-verbal mind.................................................................................... 121
The syntactic mind...................................................................................... 123
The [early] post-glacial [[[but still bicameral]]??]]mind ............................ 125
The self-aware mind ................................................................................... 131
Identity and accountability.......................................................................... 136
Reflecting on the First Millennium BCE ........................................................ 139
Coevolution of Food Production, Society, and Ecosphere 12000 BP-2000 BP141
Holocene Survival Strategies .............................................................................. 144
Ready to Survive the Common Era?............................................................... 147
Understanding Change in Human Ecosystems .................................................. 150
Patterns of Eco-cultural Evolution...................................................................... 152
All technologies are energy technologies ....................................................... 153
Many technologies are combinatorial ............................................................. 155
Initial conditions preclude-shape technology opportunities ........................... 156
Technologies come and go.............................................................................. 157
Confliction and co-operation have long shaped the technology-mix ............. 159
Recapitulation ................................................................................................. 162
Coevolution of pseudospecies..................................................................... 163
A sufficient set of ideas?............................................................................. 163
The Last Two Thousand Years............................................................................ 166
Trading networks ................................................................................................ 166
Northern invaders................................................................................................ 167
Rise of Islam ....................................................................................................... 168
Europe reorganises.............................................................................................. 169
Wind-powered trade............................................................................................ 169
The Islamic Empire............................................................................................. 170
The Mongols ....................................................................................................... 171
Islam’s ‘post-Mongol’ empires........................................................................... 171
Early Renaissance ............................................................................................... 172
Printing................................................................................................................ 173
The rise and decline of Spain and Portugal ........................................................ 174
European imperialism and mercantilism ............................................................ 176
Fossil fuels and industrial capitalism.................................................................. 178
Social and political change under industrial capitalism.................................. 181
Changing perceptions of nature, people and society .......................................... 182
Science, capitalism and democracy ................................................................ 183
World wars.......................................................................................................... 187
Precursors........................................................................................................ 187
Unleash the dogs of war.................................................................................. 190
A new order........................................................................................................ 191
The Postmodern Era............................................................................................ 193
Economic well-being ...................................................................................... 193
Global governance .......................................................................................... 195
State of the nation-state................................................................................... 196
Ecological and social well-being .................................................................... 199
Changes in social character and identity......................................................... 201
Postmodern people...................................................................................... 206
Understanding and reflecting on the Common Era........................................... 214
Globalisation ....................................................................................................... 215
The Koalas of Kangaroo Island ...................................................................... 217
An ongoing accumulation of ideas ..................................................................... 219
Impact of the scientific attitude....................................................................... 221
Progress, the god that failed............................................................................ 223
The ecology and coevolution of ideas ............................................................ 225
The history of ideas..................................................................................... 228
Is the global meaning-system sufficiently adaptive? ...................................... 230
Several reasons for gloom........................................................................... 231
Continuities and discontinuities.......................................................................... 234
Homeostatic limits and self-reorganisation .................................................... 235
Global and regional life cycles ....................................................................... 237
The deep processes of eco-cultural history......................................................... 237
Evolutionary ecology ...................................................................................... 239
The uses of history .............................................................................................. 242
The warm glow of understanding........................................................................ 243
Wonder is not admiration.................................................................................... 245
Some ineluctable realities ................................................................................... 246
1. Purposive behaviour is necessarily experimental---the what-to-do problem
......................................................................................................................... 246
2. There is no We---the pseudospecies problem ............................................ 247
3. Overshoot---the accumulation of externalities............................................ 251
But how far? how fast? ............................................................................... 252
Four juggernauts ......................................................................................... 258
Three ways of reacting to an overshoot scenario ............................................... 259
Don’t panic.......................................................................................................... 261
What is the evidence? ..................................................................................... 262
Summing up tough-mindedess........................................................................ 265
Two ways of being tender-minded ..................................................................... 266
Stop fiddling........................................................................................................ 267
A scenario for optimists .................................................................................. 269
Managed markets ............................................................................................ 270
Rise like a phoenix.............................................................................................. 272
The aftermath: rolling backwards through history.......................................... 274
Creating an inheritance ................................................................................... 275
The food problem........................................................................................ 276
The population problem.............................................................................. 277
The neighbour problem............................................................................... 278
The marauder problem ................................................................................ 280
The bully problem....................................................................................... 281
The identity problem................................................................................... 282
Technology issues ....................................................................................... 283
Shouting down the time tunnel ....................................................................... 285
Discussion............................................................................................................... 286
A broader context................................................................................................ 288
What will happen? Piecemeal intervention?................................................... 290
Very sobering.................................................................................................. 292
Stories then and now............................................................................................. 294
This book is a story ............................................................................................... 296
Descriptive and prescriptive philosophies .......................................................... 297
Ecohumanism: my suggested response to global overshoot.............................. 298
Benefits of being eco-aware................................................................................ 299
Identifying meta-problems.............................................................................. 300
Identifying matters which should be widely debated ..................................... 300
Appreciating the under-appreciated ................................................................ 301
Population growth ....................................................................................... 301
Resource depletion...................................................................................... 301
Global warming and after ........................................................................... 302
Complexification......................................................................................... 303
Practical Ecohumanism........................................................................................ 303
Some guidelines for coping with complexity ..................................................... 304
1. Acknowledging complexity ........................................................................ 304
2. Deliberate experimentation......................................................................... 304
3. Monitoring societal change......................................................................... 304
4. Technology design and asssessment ........................................................... 305
5. Encouraging recycling and renewable energy technologies ....................... 306
6 Investing in resilience .................................................................................. 307
7. Marginal incrementalism ............................................................................ 308
8 Avoiding gridlock ........................................................................................ 309
9. Encouraging cultural diversity.................................................................... 310
Some guidelines for coping with the pseudospecies problem ........................... 310
1. Towards a World Federation ...................................................................... 311
2. War and conflict.......................................................................................... 312
3. Educating for sociality ................................................................................ 312
4.Constraining elites ....................................................................................... 314
Is Ecohumanism emotionally satisfying?............................................................ 314
Tamam shud: It is finished................................................................................... 318
A convenient place to begin a brief history of the human lineage is with the placental
mammals---hairy, sweaty, toothed, lidded, flap-eared four-limbed animals with lungs,
four-chambered hearts and developed brains. They maintain a high constant body
temperature. Their young are produced from embryos attached to a placental organ in a
uterus and, after birth, are nourished by milk from mammary glands. The oldest fossil of
a placental mammal, dated to c 125 mya (million years ago), is a ‘dormouse-like
creature’ 10 cm long.
Towards the end of the Cretaceous period (70 mya-65 mya), atmospheric changes,
including cooling and reduced sunlight, caused, perhaps, by dust from a super volcano or
by an Everest-sized asteroid led to the extinction of dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs,
pterosaurs and much else. In fact no animal species weighing more than 10 kg survived
this shock. Since this event, mammals and flowering plants have been the dominant
groups of organisms.
Primates, distinguished by their good eyes and flexible hands and feet, are a taxonomic
division (an order) of the placental mammals that includes the prosimians (primitive
monkeys such as lemurs), apes, monkeys and humans. The earliest primates appear in
the fossil record at the end of the Cretaceous (65 mya) and become abundant during the
Palaeocene (65 mya-55 mya). They were small-clawed shrew-like quadrupeds living on
the ground and in the security of trees. In the Eocene (55 mya -38 mya), primates finally
took wholly to trees and developed many novel methods of coping with that environment.
Through natural selection various innovations in body structure and function suited to an
arboreal environment appeared.
These adaptations1 included manipulative grasping hands (with opposable thumb and
forefinger) and feet for leaping from limb to limb and stereoscopic vision for depth
perception (enhanced by a rotation of the eyes to the front of the skull and a reduced
snout). Parallel development of the cerebral cortex (cortex is Latin for bark) led to everIn biology, adaptation is a word used to describe both a process and its product. Adaptation
is a process of natural selection (differential reproductive success of genotypes in a
population) which produces adaptations. An adaptation is an unprecedented anatomical
structure, physiological process or behavioral trait in a population of organisms which, at
least in the short term, increases that population’s capacity to survive and reproduce.
??maladaptations from sexual selection?
better coordination of hand and eye (important for picking fruit rapidly). Sight and touch
began transcending smell and hearing as the important senses. Primates began living in
social groups and relying increasingly on socially-learned rather than instinctive
behaviour. These adaptations can be plausibly traced to the tree-dwellers’ diet of fruits
from widely scattered trees. Large territories of scattered ‘randomly flowering’ trees can
be better defended and better exploited by groups of primates with good colour vision for
finding fruiting trees and fingers suited to picking the crop. The use of group ‘scouts’ is
an effective way of amplifying the individual’s senses.
[[P65 primates are territorial.. fixed +- … attempt to expel trespassers partic their own
species familiarity with one’s own territory means more efficient gathering etc and less
threat..know danger areas *** white ]]]]
Large litters are a disadvantage for mobile animals in an arboreal environment and
primate reproductive strategy evolved towards more intensively caring for but one or two
offspring. Also, being in a relatively tropical environment there was little need to limit
sexual receptivity to certain periods of the year. Mating throughout the year is helpful for
increasing numbers in a species with a low birth rate. Having young with an extended
dependency period and having a habit of living in groups for assistance, protection and
food-finding were two developments promoting band cohesion and forms of social
organisation that eventually led to human culture.
[[P64 in primates sexual activity constant through year and this leads to pairing white
Throughout the Oligocene epoch (38 mya -25 mya), monkeys and apes, the ‘higher’
primates, flourished. By 25 mya the short-tailed dryopithicene apes regarded as ancestors
of humans and other extant apes were well established. Their evolutionary success was
enhanced by a coevolution between the seed-distributing primates themselves and seedproducing trees, a symbiosis which led to seeds of high food value and an omnivore diet
of seeds, insects and small reptiles.
During the Miocene epoch (25 mya -5 mya) the great ape family, the Hominoidae split
into the ancestors of orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. Some 17 mya
orangutan ancestors were the first group to diverge, with the gorilla-chimpanzee-human
divergence coming towards the end of the epoch. Sarich (200?), drawing on molecular
dating of DNA, suggests that gorillas, chimps and humans could have had a common
ancestor as recently as 5 mya. Other more mainstream estimates have the gorilla splitting
off some 8 mya and put the chimpanzee-human split at 6-7 mya.
The species Ardipithecus ramidus has a strong claim to being the earliest forerunner of
modern humans to be identified. In 2001, a specimen found in Ethiopia was carbon-dated
at around 5.2 million years old. Other specimens confirm that early hominines (human
ancestors), including Australopithecus afarensis, walked upright on two feet 4.3-4.5 mya.
Australopithecines and their brains
So, starting in east Africa some 5 mya, around the beginning of the Pliocene epoch (5
mya -1.8 mya), the human lineage evolved from being well-adapted tree-dwellers to
being ground-dwellers. It is believed that, as ecosystems changed in response to a drying,
cooling climate, proto-humans, australopithecines (meaning ‘southern apes’), moved
from a gallery-forest habitat to a more open savanna habitat2. And, as they moved out
onto the grasslands, they stood up. This was a key innovation which, amongst other
consequences, reduced heat loads, made it easier to look over the grass for predators, to
use tools and weapons, to bring food to a home base and to carry helpless infants. Thus,
it was an adaptation contributing something to meeting each of the three big challenges
facing all animals---food, safety and reproduction.
In time, because it allows a steady sustained gait, bipedalism (plus a unique capacity to
lose heat by sweating) would allow humans to kill much faster animals, by chasing them
to exhaustion. Note though that bipedalism does have an important limitation; it requires
the development of a weight-bearing pelvis, one in which the birth canal cannot be too
wide, which, in turn, bounds the size of the neonatal skull.
These proto-humans were small agile creatures about 1-1.3 m high, living on nuts, fruits
and berries. They were a heterogeneous group, some with large teeth and huge jaws,
some less robust. Over time, jaw and snout became less prominent as hands came to be
used to break up food and convey it to the mouth.
[Insert image here? Reconstruction of Lucy?? Australopithecus See Dunn Maps of Time
Although australopithecines of 4 mya walked like humans, they had chimpanzee-sized
brains (which still made their brains somewhat larger relative to body size than
chimpanzee brains). While some may have been able to use tools, australopithecines
showed little sign of any cognitive (thinking power) evolution.
The cause of this climate change is contentious. Starting with the northward movement
of the Australian tectonic plate, there may have been a northerly movement of the
connecting seaway between the Indian and Pacific oceans which then led to a flow of
cold north Pacific water through to the Indian ocean in place of warmer South Pacific
water. A colder Indian ocean meant less evaporation and less rainfall over Africa.
An alternative, perhaps complementary, explanation for the drying of east Africa at this time
attributes it to the delayed buildup of northern hemisphere ice sheets following the closure of
the Panama seaway and the loss of warm currents in the north Atlantic about 4 million years
Still, as the functions of fore and hind limbs differentiated, there came a parallel selection
pressure for increased (frontal) cortical representation of the specialising body parts
(Torey 1999). For example, an expanded representation in the brain of hand activity led
to improved manipulative skills and, more generally, a richer neural interplay between
brain and body. Neurally, these extra tasks were at first accommodated not so much by
brain growth as by a rudimentary redundancy-exploiting division of labour between the
brain’s left and right halves: the earlier bilaterally symmetric brain was redundant in that
either half could manage all motor (muscle moving) activities. With a set of new tasks
being managed from the left brain, there also came a consequential need for improved
channels of communication (more nerve fibres) between left and right cortical areas.
[[Selection for brains able to better manipulate the hand ..lare part of the brai ndedicated
to manipulating the hand. ]]
What was being initiated here was a period of hand-brain coevolution. Once hands had
evolved enough to make tools, it became advantageous for the brain to evolve in ways
which facilitated the making of better tools. The important underlying principle here is
that learning has evolutionary consequences. The skills an animal acquires in its life
cannot be incorporated into its genome and transmitted genetically to the next
generation. It does not follow, though, that such changes in individual phenotypes
are of no evolutionary consequence for these changes alter the selective forces acting
on that animal, and hence make a difference to the generation-by-generation action
of selection on a lineage. For example, an animal with newly-learned skills might
modify its environment in a new way (use more or different resources, say) or move into
a somewhat different environment.
In a savanna habitat, rich in large carnivores, the ‘somewhat undersized hominids must
have found themselves outclassed, outfought and outrun’ (Torey 1999). These
circumstances led them to form cooperative teams or packs whose effectiveness for
protection and food acquisition relied on coordinated action3. However (and for Torey
(1999) this is the crucial point) since the neuro-somatic (brain-body) equipment for
supporting such cooperation was not already inbuilt as instincts, the required skills (eg
food sharing) had to be acquired and perpetuated through imitation (mimesis) and
through learning.
Both of these techniques, mimesis and trial-and-error learning, are highly braindependent, the consequences being further selection for cortical skills and further reliance
on brain-managed behaviour. Mimetic skill is the ability to represent knowledge (eg
how to make a stone tool) through voluntary motor acts. Beyond being immediately
useful, the evolution of mimetic skills and their associated neural structures became the
platform from which language skills would eventually evolve.
In many circumstances cooperation can be thought of as a ‘technology’ for synergistically
amplifying the capacities (sensory, physical, mental) of individuals.
Habilines and erectines
Australopithecines survived in the African landscape till about a million years ago (Wills
19??). Along the way, perhaps 3 mya, the first member of the genus Homo, namely
Homo habilis (‘handy man’) split from the australopithecine lineage. Homo habilis is
perhaps best described as a confusing collection of transitional forms (habilines) between
australopithecines and Homo erectus, the first large brained hominid to appear in the
fossil record, about 2 mya in both Africa and East Asia. In fact, the stone tool record
suggests that erectines (Homo erectus and variants) could have emerged 2.5 mya. It
seems that between 2.5-2 mya the forests and savannas of east Africa could have been
home to a mixture of australopithecines, habilines and erectines (Wills 19??).
Australopithecenes had a 450 cc brain, habilines a 450-600 cc brain and erectines a 900
cc brain. This increase in brain size over several million years was largely in regions
controlling, respectively, the hand, proto-speech (of some sort) and hindsight-foresight, ie
some appreciation of cause and effect. How and why did this transition occur? It may
well have been in response to various lifestyle changes including a switch in diet from,
first, leaves to fruit, nuts and roots and then to an omnivore diet containing quantities of
meat. Food-acquisition techniques concurrently expanded from gathering plant parts to
scavenging carcases to group-hunting of large game4.
Becoming meat eaters in competition with, first, scavenger carnivores like jackals and
then with well-armed primary carnivores like lions required not only group cooperation
but the development of tools such as stone hammers for breaking marrow bones (of
particular importance for creating a secure ecological niche), sharp stones for tearing
tough hides and clubs for killing game. Evolving a brain which could support the
cognitive and motor skills (eg stone throwing) underpinning such behaviours allowed
hominids to compete with better-armed carnivores. More than this, a bigger brain was an
‘open ended’ adaptation with the potential to co-evolve in parallel with a widening range
of social, cultural and cognitive skills and, indeed, to cope with a further-changing
environment. Along with changes to lifestyle, brain architecture/organisation and a
slowing rate of maturation (see below) came a change in hormone balance, namely from
adrenaline dominance, the mark of fearful or prey species, to noradrenaline dominance,
the mark of aggressive, predatory species. Selecting hominids for delayed development
automatically selects for adults with a more juvenile and hence more ‘aggressive’
hormone balance, meaning one more suited to hunting than gathering.
Falk et al 2000, with their radiator hypothesis, suggest that the dramatic increase in
brain size that occurred in Homo was facilitated (not directly caused) by the evolution of
a radiator network of veins which relaxed the thermal constraints on overheating that
previously kept brain size in check.
A period of major climatic fluctuations, the precursor to the Pleistocene ice ages perhaps,
began some 3.5 mya (the first major ice build-up began about 2.5 mya). Intelligence
turned out to be an ideal general-purpose highly-evolvable ‘tool’ for coping with the
associated environmental challenges while not becoming trapped in an evolutionary dead
end. Most successful but specialised genetically-based adaptations to currently prevailing
conditions are burdened by an inability to ‘go back’ when conditions change once more.
This is why most species that have ever been are now extinct. As Bronowski (1973 p26)
says, the environment exacts a high price for survival of the fittest---it captures them.
Judging by the dramatic continuous increase in brain size between Australopithecus (450
cc) and modern man (1350 cc) it can be reasonably assumed that increasing brain size
(and brain complexification), with its increasing capacity for cause-effect reasoning,
remained evolutionarily advantageous under a range of markedly different environments.
Tooby and Devore (see Pinker p188) suggest that it was H. habilis who first moved from
instinctive behaviour to the ‘cognitive niche’ where knowledge of how things work can
be used to attain goals in the face of obstacles. This involves what we largely mean by
intelligence, namely, the building of mental models, of cognitive schemata if you prefer.5
Two million years ago
Some 2 mya, perhaps earlier, as east Africa continued to dry and cool, erectines migrated
outwards, reaching Europe, Java, Pakistan and south China by 1.7 mya.6 The pressure to
keep moving on, migrating, would have been a result of any net population growth in a
savanna environment able to support only 1-2 people per square mile. McNeil (1979)
makes the suggestion that this first spurt in human numbers may have been boosted by
the jettisoning of various tropical parasites as humans moved into colder dryer regions.
Indeed, by the time the Pleistocene epoch proper began, H. erectus had dispersed across
the still habitable parts of Europe and the near and far East. And it was around 1.9- 2
mya that erectines began to use fire and invented cooking (Wrangham et al 1999).
Cooking tubers, by making their starches digestible, allowed this increasingly-common
cold-climate underground food source to become a concentrated and reliable (more so
than fruits) part of the human diet. Together, it was fire and cooking which allowed
humans to spread into cold areas. Mastery of fire would have allowed erectines to camp
and live in the presence of large predators.
D’Andrade RG 1995 The Development of Cognitive Anthropology Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge
Stone tools 2.5 myrs old have been found in Israel and Pakistan, suggesting to Wills
(1998) that habilines also left Africa for Asia, and perhaps eastern Europe, at least 2.5
million years ago, while climates were still mild.
Increased energy intakes at this time would have lifted constraints on increased brain
size, further increased reproduction rates and increased life spans, all relative to habilines
and australopithecines. In turn, grandmothers would have been useful for the hard work
of finding and digging tubers, and feeding them to children. Perhaps gender roles--hunting for men and food-gathering and protecting the cooking hearth for women---arose
in part because women became less efficient bipedalists as their hips widened to allow
the birth of larger-brained children. This natural sharing of complementary contributions
to the hunter-gatherer economy may also help explain male-female pair-bonding within
larger groups and the low degree of sexual dimorphism (male-female size difference) in
humans relative to other apes7. That is, with less competition for females there could
have been less selection pressure for ever-larger males to evolve.
Portending the arrival of Homo sapiens, another anatomical consequence of the invention
of tools and cooking was the shrinking of powerful teeth and jaws and loss of the brow
ridges that anchor the jaw muscles. [[Because cooking increases the energy-density of
food, the human gut began to shrink.]]] Also, for reasons that are not clear unless one
assumes a very early development of language (as singing perhaps?), H. erectus acquired
a greatly extended vocal flexibility due to a rearrangement of the palate and larynx. Even
if, improbably, the vocal tract in erectines were sufficiently developed for articulated
speech, as distinct from other forms of vocalisation, a brain capable of managing speech
still would have been lacking.
Upgrading the habiline-erectine brain
While a higher-energy diet permitted a cognitively useful but energy-guzzling erectine
brain to increase sharply in size over evolutionary time (to 70 per cent of that of a modern
human), what was the actual mechanism?
In large part, it was selection for neotenous development or, more accurately, neotenous
regression. Neoteny is a not-uncommon evolutionary process in which successive
generations increasingly retain, through to maturity, what were baby-like features in their
ancestors. In humans, this means retaining such things as looking forward when standing
upright, a flat face with big eyes, playfulness and unclosed skull sutures. It may be noted
that modern adult humans resemble, uncannily, the juvenile forms of the other great apes,
none of which have experienced neotenous development.
[ Include images of young and adult chimps???]]]]
This progressive infantilisation had a range of consequences. It not only allowed babies
with bigger brains to pass through the birth canal (because of their flexible skulls), it
allowed brain growth to continue till reproductive maturity. And it did so continue, part
of the neoteny package being a delayed activation of the regulatory genes which switch
Based on observation of many mammalian taxa, a low degree of sexual dimorphism is an
indicator of monogamous mating behaviour.
the brain from a higher growth rate characteristic of juveniles to a lower, more
characteristically adult growth rate. On the other side of the ledger, postponed
development has meant a loss of strength, speed and agility relative to other apes.
Neoteny, cooperative behaviour and individual autonomy
Equally importantly, this just-noted delay in brain development meant that babies were
being born before various instinctual ‘survival-promoting’ tendencies had been ‘wiredin’. One consequence of this was babies who were totally dependent on parental and
group nurturing to survive.
This dependence of infants might have had, plausibly, two further evolutionary
consequences. One would have been a selection pressure to further enhance the group
bonding and cooperative behaviour which had been part of the lineage’s evolution for 50
myrs (million years). Part of that social evolution would have been selection for
cooperative and teachable children, able to evoke the support they needed.
A second consequence of infant helplessness, the antithesis of selection for cooperation at
first glance, would have been a selection for autonomy, a drive to actively learn survival
skills through play and other self-initiated actions8.
Together, as Clark (2002, p130) puts it:These simultaneously increasing propensities to bond on the
one hand and have autonomy on the other became part of
genetically ingrained “drives” embedded in the motivational
centers of the evolving brain, as are our “drives” for water,
food, shelter, and mating. Obviously the pair of them
exacerbated the opportunities for inner psychic tensions as
well as social stress when bonds came into conflict with
independent behaviors.
In contemporary humans of course, this tension, in the form of managing both the drive
to individuate and the drive or need for secure attachment, to belong within the group, has
come to be seen as central to the problem of achieving mental health; within the family
Drives can be thought of as generalised instincts involving much-heightened perception
and motivation. In comparison, most instincts exhibit as more specific behavioural
patterns which may be elicited under certain circumstances. In the case of humans, two
conditions must be fulfilled for actual acting out of instinctual behavioural patterns:
relevant stimuli and the absence of other modes of regulating behaviour. Drives are
extremely plastic in humans. For example, sexual and feeding drives do not tell the
individual where to seek release or what to eat; specific behavioural responses to these
drives are acquired through socialisation (Berger & Luckmann 1967 p181).
too, where marriage is sustained by holding in tension the twin needs for intimacy and
Neoteny and playfulness
It is easy to overlook the importance of hominids having been selected for a prolonged
capacity for juvenile, playful, exploratory behaviour as an ancillary to being selected for
neotenous development; an importance beyond facilitating the learning of extant survival
skills. How is this? Because play involves trying things ‘at random’, it leads, on
occasions, to the discovery of useful new ways of behaving. And to this extent the drive
to playfulness, including mental play, is the process underlying the increasing capacity to
behave in a wide variety of ways (depending on context), which, as discussed below, is at
the heart of the hominid lineage’s ‘strategy’ for achieving adaptedness.
The Pleistocene ice ages
Earth’s most recent period of ice ages or repeated glaciations (glacials) began about 2.5m
years ago after 250 m years without an ice age9. Note that while commonly referred to as
the Pleistocene ice ages (including here), the start of the geologists’ Pleistocene epoch is
normally set at 1.6-1.8 mya, not at 2.5 mya. Caused by regular variations in the Earth’s
orbit around the Sun, there have been some two dozen warming–cooling cycles ( plus and
minus 3-4 degrees C ) in that 2.5 myrs, each lasting, very approximately, 100 000 years
(much less till about a million years ago). Each cycle comprises (a) a long cooling
period of (say) 90 kyrs, with temperatures fluctuating but getting much colder towards
the end, followed by (b) a short transition (centuries) characterised by very rapid, highamplitude climatic oscillations which leads to (c) a ‘sudden’ warmer interglacial period
of (say) 10 kyrs.
For example, in the last ice age, which started 115 kya and ended 12 k years ago (defined
as the end of the Pleistocene), huge ice sheets advanced and retreated several times over
most of Canada, northern Europe and Russia. Sea levels rose and fell by as much as 200
m in concert with this locking up and releasing of much of the world’s water from
glaciers. The advancing glaciers, covering up to 27 per cent of the earth’s surface,
obliterated most plant and animal life in their paths and pushed the inhabited temperate
zones of the northern hemisphere south. In the southern hemisphere mountain-top
glaciers grew enormously. Much of the tropics became cool deserts. More generally,
cold-climate vegetation types tended to replace warm-climate types. Some 18-20 k years
ago the Earth was as cool as it had ever been in a million years, just as, now, it is as
Because 250 m years is the time it takes the solar system to revolve around the centre of
the galaxy (the ‘galactic year’), we can speculate that there is a cloudy, Sun-dimming region
which the solar system encounters for several million years once every revolution. If that is
so, there is a possibility that the present epoch of ice ages might be the last for another 250 m
By a million years ago Homo erectus, dispersed half way around the world, was the only
surviving hominid. And then, some 800 kya, came what was to be the second of three
waves of human emigration from Africa.10. By 500 kya H. erectus began to give way to
several other types of Homo. For example, by 250 kya an archaic Homo sapiens, with a
brain as big as ours (but with behaviour that showed no sign of art or symbol use) had
appeared. Neanderthal man, heavy-jawed and even bigger brained, was certainly here
100 kya. [[once culture became more important c 600kya??? And brain size spurted
longevity improves cultural transmission and so selection for bigger brain leads to longer
lives leads to better cultural tmission)]]]Humphrey why does bigger brain help us live
As for modern humans, the fossil evidence for an African origin is strong. It is clear that
modern humans (H. sapiens sensu stricto) were certainly present in Africa by 130 kya,
and perhaps as early as 190 kya depending how certain specimens are interpreted.
Modern humans, the third wave of people to emigrate from Africa, first left c 100 kya
(during the last inter-glacial), but rather unsuccessfully, and then left again about 80 kya.
Recent evidence suggests that modern humans were present in Australia as early as 62
kya (Stringer, 1999; Thorne et al., 1999). In a warmer period following the particularly
cold millennium triggered by the Mt Toba eruption 71 kya (see below), humans migrated
into north Asia. From there, after encountering a subsequent period of cooling and
glaciation, they migrated back into Europe, first appearing there (and in central Asia) c.40
kya. And, by 25-30 kya, with the disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe, H. sapiens
was the planet’s only species of human.
While the erectine brain continued to grow and reorganise through most of the
Pleistocene, culminating in the emergence 150-200 kya of modern humans with 1350 cc
brains and a capacity for structured language, this was, in some ways, a period of very
slow change, almost stagnation, in human evolution.
The single most important change over that period of more than a million years was the
eventual arrival, at a young enough age, of a brain organisation and size---around 750 cc--capable of supporting rudimentary speech skills. A one year old sapiens and a six year
old erectus both have a 750 cc brain but the erectus brain, even though meeting the
capacity threshold, cannot learn language simply because it has grown too slowly. That
is, the parts of the left frontal cortex which might have been appropriated for learning and
using language---a sophisticated motor skill---have already been appropriated for learning
and using basic motor skills more needed for immediate survival (Torey 1999 p36)11.
(Templeton Nature 2002 ?)
There is evidence that even in modern adults the cerebral cortex is constantly readjusting and fine-tuning its assignment of processing space, reflecting the constantly
changing use-patterns imposed by the environment (Donald Origins of the modern mind).
Indeed, there is evidence that even in adults the cerebral cortex is constantly re-adjusting
and fine-tuning its assignment of processing space between tasks, reflecting the
constantly changing use-patterns imposed by the environment.
Also, as Deacon (20?? p137) points out, an individual brain which is maturing in parallel
with its increasing language skills is positioned to (indeed, must) build up those skills
hierarchically (words before syntax), and hence more efficiently, than a more mature
brain grappling with several hierarchical levels simultaneously.
Apart from cranial changes associated with brain changes, Pleistocene evolution would
have seen a continuation, but slowing, of other existing trends in outward appearance
such as loss of body hair, increasing height and shrinking face, teeth, jaws, gut and rib
cage. In terms of cultural evolution the general view is that things moved slowly prior to
a surge in the development of tools, art, burial practices, artefacts etc in the late
Pleistocene, say, 30-40 ka.
What is of more interest here though is contemporary speculation as to the ongoing
evolution through the Pleistocene of what Clark (2001? p160) calls the behavioural
guidance system, and the behaviour patterns generated by that system. In one or another
form, most of the tools or technologies or elements of that guidance system---feelings or
emotions,12 memory, skills in learning through imitation and repeated personal
experience, simple reasoning skills, non-verbal communication, cultural norms---would
have been present in early Homo erectus.
In a general way, the evolution of the behavioural guidance system through the
Pleistocene hinged on bringing more and more information of various sorts to bear on
and influence individual behaviour. Relatively at least, there would have been decreasing
reliance on purely genetic information (instinct) and immediate sensory information (as
when responding reflexively to stimuli) and more reliance on stored (memory-based)
information and internally generated (eg reason-based) information. And, towards the
end of the Pleistocene, symbolic information, particularly in the form of spoken language,
would have become increasingly available.
Continuing to generalise, can something be said about the survival value of moreinformed behaviour? Perhaps. Having more, and more sorts of, information available
may have allowed the species to occupy a wider niche (live in more environments) or live
in an existing niche more securely. Or, as a variation on the latter, modify a niche to
make it more secure. Or, another possibility, allow the species to more readily adapt to
niche change, ie to a changing environment. All of these can be interpreted as variously
The concept of emotions as strong feelings has weakened to the point where the two words
are interchangeable. An operational distinction might be that a feeling is a private
experience of an emotion, one that cannot be observed by anyone else.
securing improvements in the magnitude and/or reliability of the energy supplies needed
for maintenance and reproduction. A simple example might be the storing of information
needed to crack marrow bones open.
The survival value of improved information does however come at a price, namely the
additional food energy required to maintain an upgraded information system, a bigger and
better-organised brain. That is, an improved information system has to cover its own
increased energy costs before it can deliver any increased survival benefits. It can be
argued that throughout the Pleistocene, at least up till the late Pleistocene, the survival
value of an increasingly informed behavioural guidance system self-evidently outweighed
the additional costs in energy terms of improving and maintaining that system; the brain
kept getting more energy-demanding. And if brain size did plateau with the emergence of
modern humans, was this due to an encounter with some physical limit (eg the exhaustion
of neoteny or the speed of intra-brain communication) or due to diminishing returns to
brain size, ie did enabled improvements in energy supplies come into balance with
increased energy demands?
Memory and learning
Some form of memory, that is, a capacity for storing acquired information in the central
nervous system from where it can be retrieved for future guidance of behaviour, would
have been present in the earliest mammals. Indeed, memory may well have been the first
transformative development in animal information systems after a long evolutionary
period in which the senses were the predominant sources of information (with motor
nerves linked directly to sensory nerves). Here, we will not discuss the cellular processes
which underlie the conversion (encoding) of patterns of experience into patterns of neural
processes, ie into learning and memory. Suffice to say that these appear to be much the
same for all animals from ‘snails to simians’ (Deacon 1997 p163).
In hominids each hemisphere of the brain has four cortical lobes, of which three---visual,
temporal, parietal---are dedicated to parallel distributed (simultaneously in several places)
processing and storing of sensory information, creating diffusely stored patterns of
experience, ie memories. The fourth lobe, the frontal, especially its most forward part,
the prefrontal cortex, is much less involved with such processing and storing and more
involved with sampling information from the other lobes and recombining it, ie with
thinking. It is what Luria (Clark p 150) called the planning cortex, as distinct from the
three lobes of the sensory cortex. To this end, the planning cortex has multiple
connections with the areas of the sensory cortex that are used for storage /retrieval of
long-term memories (Clark p 150). Additionally and importantly, it has a capacity for
holding short-term memories (lasting up to 30 seconds) which can be used to guide rapidresponse behaviour and which have the potential to become long-term memories.
The planning cortex is also well-connected (via ‘thalamocortical pathways’) to the
emotional centres of the brain; primarily the thalamus and the limbic system, this latter
being a group of subcortical brain structures surrounding the thalamus. In the course of
forming a memory, data flows from the sense organs, via the thalamus, to the frontal
lobes and finally to the sensory cortex where it is stored. To embed incoming
information in long-term (permanent) memory storage, ie to form a memory retrievable
in the future, a threshold degree of attention to what is being sensed and a degree of
emotional arousal are required. Failing that, repeated exposure to a pattern of experience
can still embed it in permanent memory. And always, as Damasio (Clark p152) points
out, feelings evoked during the passage of sensory information to the sensory cortex via
the brain’s emotional centres are stored along with the memory; and retrieved with it13.
When retrieved (to the planning cortex), a memory is experienced as a sequential
sampling (‘frames’) from the original experience, passing from detail to detail, from
perspective to perspective, much like a story or narrative. At some stage during the
Pleistocene the ability to voluntarily retrieve memories emerged. This meant that the
‘chain’ of details being retrieved could be interrupted at any ‘link’ and, depending
perhaps on the emotional associations of that detail, the sequence could be redirected
towards other memories. Modern apes and, presumably, our pre-Pleistocene ancestors,
appear to retrieve memories of episodic experiences only after stimulation from the
environment. As an indication of how this learning-memory process might have been
upgraded over the Pleistocene, a nine months old human brain is too immature to firmly
register experiences, while at 17-21 months it has developed enough to record and
retrieve a memory of a single distinctive experiences (Kagan??).
Learning as a process of percept formation
In one sense, any act of storing a newly-encountered pattern of experience in memory is
an act of learning, ie the stock of information available for guiding behaviour has been
increased. More generally though, learning is thought of as taking place when further
similar patterns of experience are encountered, and the original memory is successively
refined in a process of percept formation analogous to the use, in modern humans, of
inductive reasoning to form concepts.14 We might guess that a capacity for percept
formation began overtaking a capacity for remembering only specific events (episodic
memory) early in the Pleistocene.
How are percepts (cognitive categories is another name) formed? No two patterns of
experience will be quite the same but each recurrence of any experience which is
accepted as being in the same ‘family’ as the original experience (how? similar enough
It needs to be stated clearly that while science has learned much about correlations
between brain activity and having feelings, science cannot explain how a feeling is generated
any more than it can explain how a gravitational force is generated . See Harnad S, What is
Consciousness? Letter to New YorkReview of Books June 23 2005 p56.
14 In logic, induction is the process of generalising over multiple examples, commonly by
emphasising similarities and ignoring differences between them. A percept is anything
which can be identified and, in principle, named. A schema is a ‘super percept’ made up of
multiple percepts in a stable relationship. Percepts tend to be abstractions from direct
experiences. Concepts tend to be more abstract than percepts and language-based in a way
that percepts are not.
to some prototypical example?) strengthens the likelihood of certain components within
the pattern being linked and being retrieved together. Components which are commonly
retrieved together (ie, the relevant neurons tend to fire together, a tendency which
increases with repetition) become pieces (sub-percepts)[[[excerpts??]] of the percept
being built up, eg storing and retrieving ‘long neck’ and ‘black feathers’ together
contributes to building up the percept of ‘swan’. Similarly, patterns of experience
accepted as being outside the ‘swan’ family, contribute to stabilising the percept ‘not a
A percept and the degree to which various inherently variable components are recognised
as integral to that percept both evolve in the light of experience. Or, putting it differently,
a percept is a fuzzy composite of all patterns of prior experience currently accepted as
being members of the same family of experiences. A percept’s boundaries can be
expected to stabilise with experience and with practical success in using it. This process
of learning by inductively forming percepts is also a process of acquiring information, at
least when the sense in which that word is taken is ‘that which decreases doubt
concerning meaning’ (answers to questions). And what is meaning? It is the recognition
of relationships between entities. Percepts (and concepts and schemata of relationships)
are thus bearers of meaning. Learning is the memorisation and refinement of meaning.
The information that learning produces can be retrieved from memory and delivered as
input to the complex process of thinking. Basically, it is thinking which realises the
potential value of memory and learning. While thinking will be further discussed
presently, we can note here that, amongst other functions, it allows alternative future
behaviours to be compared, cheaply, for their survival value; increasingly so with the
development of verbal language, the tagging of percepts with names. Names can be
thought with more easily than percepts themselves.
We might also note, finally, that while learning has been described in terms of storing and
generalising patterns of sensory stimuli, the process is not restricted to acquiring
information about entities in the outside world. In later hominids at least, perceptions of
associations between components of distinct existing memories also emerge; a case of
learning from oneself or generative learning. Again, possibilities for learning from others
multiplied with the advent of language.
Feelings and emotions
[[??rewrite treating emotions as tools for classifying situations in terms of how to react to
them??]]]]] also to emphasise emotional learning ie learning from others when to have particular
emotions ..emotional learning [conditioning] primes one’s emotional memory .. emotional core
of the brain, the limbic system and the amygdale..stuffcoming back from speech areas is
checked to see what if any emotional response you should have to it… read scaruffi
againbr4 rewriting ]]]]
Evolution of feelings-emotions
Before mammals, animal behaviour (observable activity) was reflexive---stimulus in,
motor response out. Reptilian motor (muscle control) centres reacted to visual, auditory,
tactile, chemical, gravitational, and motion-sensory cues with one of a limited number of
preset body movements and programmed postures. With the arrival of night-active
mammals c 180 mya, smell replaced sight as the dominant sense, and a newer, more
discriminating way of responding, one directed by emotions and emotional memory15,
arose from the olfactory sense. In the Jurassic period, the mammalian brain invested
heavily in aroma circuits designed to function at night while reptilian predators slept.
These odour pathways, carrying messages of threat, food etc gradually became the neural
blueprint for what would eventually be the limbic (early mammalian) brain. By c 150
mya, the nerve network for emotions and moods had largely evolved from neural
structures previously committed to smell.
Emotions are responses within individuals to memories, other thoughts (eg motor
intentions) and experiential situations which raise issues of survival, directly or by
implication, eg threats, attacks, poisonous substances, or the sighting of a potential mate.
What form do they take? Emotions are of a few basic types (see below) and take the
form of (a) a neural impulse to act, (b) a characteristic range of internal physiological
changes in the digestive tract, lungs, circulatory system etc and, debatably, (c) feelings,
meaning perceptions fed back to the planning cortex that these in-body events are
happening and that they are ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’. I say ‘debatably’ because
psychologists are divided on whether the term ‘emotions’ should include ‘feelings’ along
with the loose collections of impulses and bodily changes comprising ‘emotions’ in early
mammals. Perhaps it is best to think of emotions and feelings as two separate but interrelated perceptual systems, the emotional system being evolutionarily earlier.(from the
beginning of the Cambrian) and the feelings system being associated with the late
mammalian brain. The distinction is important because it is the perception of feelings in
the late mammalian brain which confers on later mammals (eg hominids) a capacity to
inhibit an initial impulse to act and initiate a ‘more appropriate’ response, ie ‘appropriate’
as determined in a higher cognitive centre.
Emotions are mammalian elaborations of early-vertebrate arousal patterns, in which
neurochemicals (eg, dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin) step-up or step-down the
brain's activity level for a period, in response to sensory stimuli. It is the associated
physiological changes in blood pressure, heart rate etc which raise the organism’s
capacity to react spontaneously, immediately, energetically and persistently to the
Emotional memory is memory involving the implicit (probably unconscious) learning and
storage of information about the emotional significance of events.
triggering situation.16 The particular type of emotional response to the brain’s perception
of a situation reflects the brain’s prior interpretation of that situation, that is, the meaning
given to it. For example, the interpretation of a situation as threatening triggers a fear
response. Because it happens automatically and very rapidly in an inaccessible part of
the brain, even modern humans are, for the most part, unaware of this process of
interpretation or assignation of meaning to events and situations; only the subsequent
emotional state.
Instinctive behaviour does not need to be motivated emotionally but is strictly limited in
the range of trigger situations and matched responses it can recognise. The value of the
new system of emotionally-directed behaviour was that it allowed the learning (eg, by
imitating a parental example) of a somewhat broader choice of behavioural responses to a
more finely classified, a more informed, perception of the environment.. For a long time,
behaviour would still have been largely impulsive but nevertheless, still increasingly
Emotional states, because they are sustained chemically rather than neurologically, tend
to persist and, for the time that an emotional state is persisting, the individual will
continue trying behaviours as if in search of an altered situation which will be interpreted
by the brain as one no longer requiring an emotional response. What evolution has
produced is a reflective mechanism which uses emotions as internally-generated signals
(information) for guiding behaviour towards correcting situations which cause negative
emotions (anger, fear, shame, sadness). Conversely, positive emotions (sexual arousal,
parental tenderness) are adaptations which accompany and reinforce behaviours that have
been genetically and experientially selected as survival-promoting, eg the propensities in
primate social groups for both bonding and autonomous behaviours. Behaviours which
are successful in relieving or gratifying emotions rapidly become habitual responses to
similar situations. For most of the time, humans are purposive rule-following animals,
living a life which, metaphorically, is like a giant chess game.17 Novel situations tend to
produce strong emotions and hence strong ‘motivation’ to find an appropriate behavioural
response. We have here a causal loop in which emotions guide (evoke) behaviours and
behaviours guide (step up, step down) emotions. More explicitly, emotion rouses the
individual into activity and activity ineluctably generates a change in emotion as it
changes the situation being experienced. Without emotions, the hominid brain would not
be aroused to initiate anything (other than instinctive behaviour), nor have any constraints
on or guidance as to what to do. That is, emotions both initiate behaviour and reduce
uncertainty as to how to behave.
[[[the physiological component of emotion has been traditionally identified as activity in
the autonomic nervous system and the visceral organs (eg heart and lungs) that it
17 Peter RS (1958) The concept of motivation, Studies in Philosphical Psychology (RF Holland
ed) Routledge & Kegan Paul London. and New York.
This emotion-based system for guiding behaviour is sometimes described,
metaphorically, as a reward–punishment system. Starting with the idea that being in a
state of emotional arousal amounts to an unwanted ‘disequilibrium’, any behaviour which
moves the individual into a more restful state, one of less arousal, can be thought of as
having been rewarded. Conversely, behaviour which increases emotional arousal is, by
definition, being ‘punished’. By moving between seeking rewards and avoiding
punishments, the individual can grope (call it negative feedback) towards an emotional
equilibrium. Notwithstanding, the range of behavioural options available for reducing
emotional arousal under a purely emotion-based guidance system would have been
limited. This brings us to the choosing brain.
[[the above does not point out that the emotion is a (mostly) learned response to a particular sort
of situation followed by a (learned) response to the emotion ..have to learn what to respond to
with emotion and also have to learn how to respond so that the emotion is less arousing ]]] but
see emotions and the social environment below ]] amygdala = cemotional core of the
brain, the limbic system and the area where attachments to other s
formed ]] [[when one is emotionally aroused one keeps focussing on the
source of that arousal and can't switch to other matters]]]]
The choosing brain
At some stage in its evolution, moving beyond unalloyed instinct and beyond
emotionally-directed behaviour, the hominid lineage began to acquire an additional
capacity, namely, to identify, evaluate and choose amongst (not necessarily consciously)
a wider range of possible behavioural responses to survival-relevant situations. How
might we envisage this emerging capability? In situations where the associated
emotional response is below some threshold level (i.e., the impulse to act is not
irresistible), the thinking brain is able to override the limbic brain’s emotion-based
impulses. What then follows is that the brain imagines the consequences of alternatives
to impulsive behaviour and chooses the first imagined alternative to generate sufficiently
positive feelings. The implication here is that imagined behaviours generate emotional
responses, and then feelings, in much the same way as ‘real’ behaviours. Just as the
bodies of terrestrial animals evolved to internalise the watery environments of their
ancestors, the choosing brain is internalising (and elaborating) the exploratory sequences
of impulsive behaviours and feedbacks associated with emotionally-directed behaviour.
Emotions and the social environment
Beyond guiding individual behaviour, feelings-emotions have a second role. They
consistently produce external signals and signs observable by other members of the
individual’s social group.18 These include pheromones and body changes (skin colour,
posture etc) which, being largely involuntary, are reliable indicators of behavioural
intentions or propensities. Similarly, all humans, and presumably all hominids, employ
the same facial muscles when expressing a particular emotion.19 Going back millions of
years, these observable accompaniments of feelings became a form of indicative
communication about an individual’s emotional state to which hominid brains have
become particularly sensitised.20 Darwin recognised the largely biological (genetic)
nature of emotional expression 130 years ago, suggesting that such expressions were
derived from actions that originally served biologically adaptive functions, eg preparation
for biting became the bared teeth of the anger expression, courting behaviour spun off
signals of friendship, nurturing behaviour lies behind gestures to soothe anger, to ask for
help. In his classic study of emotions (1872), he concluded that while expressive
movements may no longer serve biological functions, they clearly serve critical social
and communicative functions.
The evolved function of such communication of information is to regulate the behaviour
of the group. For a large part of the Pleistocene, prior certainly to the arrival of
functional language, the easy transmission and spread of an emotional state amongst
group members would have served as an important mechanism (along with instinctual
responses and a propensity to imitate others) for co-ordinating group behaviour. Indeed,
the metaphor of the group behaving as a ‘super-organism’ is not overblown.
Sensing an emotional response in others tends to have the same effect as being exposed
oneself to the stimulus which triggered the original response. More than this, such
transfers of emotions convey to inexperienced juveniles how to respond to particular
environmental situations. We might also note here that while the impulse to respond to
an emotion-laden situation may be biologically strong, it will be diffuse; the actual
response will usually depend on how the individual has been previously socialised or
Such emotional learning is in keeping with constructivist theories of emotions,21 which
suggest that the set of situations eliciting emotional responses is co-determined (a)
genetically and (b) by the individual’s experiences, most particularly their learning
experiences in their social environment. For example, a behaviour which is punished by
a mother displaying anger will come, in time, to elicit the same emotional response in the
The involuntary communication of emotions by indicative signs would have been
augmented at some stage during the Pleistocene by voluntary forms of indicative
In biology, a signal is any behaviour that conveys information from one individual to
another, regardless of whether it serves other functions as well.
19 (Tomkins 1963, Ekman 1982)
20 (Deacon p 431).
21 [[(reference needed?]]
communication, including purposive gestures, vocalisations and the simulated expression
of emotion. Speech, which can be presumed to have been added to the hominid
communication repertoire at a later stage again, was a dramatically different form of
communication, one based on the use of arbitrary or symbolic signs rather than indicative
or natural signs. Whereas indicative signs are abstracted from, are some aspect of, the
information being communicated, the signs used in symbolic communication have no
apparent indicative content but still manage to reflect a mutual understanding amongst
the communicants as to what object, idea, behaviour etc the symbol stands for.22 Having
said that, the boundary between indicative and symbolic signs is frequently blurry, eg
pretending to throw versus pointing.
While the set of stimuli tending to produce a learned emotional response would have
been ceaselessly changing over the long Pleistocene, there is no reason to believe that the
range of emotions available for guiding hominid behaviour would have changed in any
significant way from the ancient set (with variations) of anger, fear, shame-guilt,
happiness, sadness and, debatably, sexual arousal23. Over the Pleistocene, an increasing
proportion of all situations producing emotions would involve some form of social
interaction, arising mostly during the meeting of the individual’s physiological and
psychological (bonding, autonomy and meaning) needs and the meeting of the group’s
need to maintain, transmit and, occasionally, modify its culture
A group’s culture, meaning its accumulated learned behaviour, is passed on in a variety
of ways from generation to generation, slowly changing in the process. When learning to
habitually behave in accord with cultural norms, children will simultaneously be
acquiring the associated reward-punishment feelings that will motivate them to continue
behaving in culturally compatible ways.
It can be noted here, for later recall, that if new behaviours can be attached to particular
emotions and feelings, the possibility suggesting itself is that ‘human nature’ is
malleable, that humans can be successfully socialised in multiple ways.. This is also
In Peircian terms "signs" comprise the larger class, of which "symbols" are a subclass of
signs involving arbitrary and conventional sign-referent relations. For Piaget, the words
"symbol" and "symbolic function" refer to the larger class, while "signs" are defined as the
subclass of symbol relations that are arbitrary and conventional. In other words, the use of
the two
terms "sign" and "symbol" is reversed between Piaget and Peirce. "
(Bates, E. , et al. (1979) On the evolution and development of symbols.
Academic Press, New York p. 64)
23 There are a number of candidate lists of primary emotions (collectively grouped as ‘affect’)
in the literature. For example, Robert Plutchik developed (1980) a theory showing eight
primary human emotions; joy, acceptance, fear, submission, sadness, disgust, anger, and
anticipation, and argued that all human emotions can be derived from these.
consistent with Fromm’s observation that a society’s social character is ‘mobile’ and can
be changed relatively easily. 24
The further evolution of non-verbal communication
Gestures (eg pointing), postures (eg standing tall) and body movements (eg shoulder
shrugging) are all ways in which information could have been communicated between
group members throughout the Pleistocene. Like expressions of emotion, some of these
signs would have been involuntary and, originally at least, indicative, ie metaphorical
rather than arbitrarily symbolic. But, at some stage (perhaps half a million years ago as
archaic Homo sapiens was speciating?), evolving in parallel with an increasing cognitive
capability, such non-verbal communication (popularly known as body language) must
have come under voluntary, purposive control. This switch from a reactive to a proactive
(goal directed) cognitive system (see below) represented the beginnings of hominids’
capacity to mentally model real-world situations and reflect on them, not necessarily
consciously, in order to choose a ‘best available’ response, eg to gesture or not to gesture.
The importance of mimesis
Mimetic action is basically a talent for using the whole body
as a communication device, for translating event-perceptions
into action. Its underlying modelling principle is perceptual
metaphor; thus it might also be called action-metaphor. It is
the most basic human thought-skill, and remains
fundamentally independent of our truly linguistic modes of
representation. Mimesis is based in a memory system that
can rehearse and refine movement voluntarily and
systematically, guided by a perceptual model of the body in
its surrounding environment, and store and retrieve the
products of that rehearsal. It is based on an abstract "model
of models" that allows any voluntary action of the body to be
stopped, replayed, and edited, under conscious control. This
is inherently a voluntary access route to memory, since the
product of the model is an implementable self-image.
(Donald 1991??) 1997 précis of book
To be useful, the meanings of non-verbal signs have to be mutually understood across the
social group and need to be transmitted from one generation to the next. In Berger and
Luckmann’s (19?/ p68) phrase, meanings of signs must have ‘sedimented.’, The general
capability which allows groups to develop and maintain systems of non-verbal
communication, and it probably evolved well before Australopithecus, is mimesis. As
discussed enthusiastically by Merlin Donald (1991), mimesis (call it motor mimesis
perhaps?) is most simply thought of as a capacity for imitation and rehearsal of physical
(Berger and Luckman p 165) Fromm ref Little Albert?
behaviour, of action sequences. It takes place in two steps. Step 1 is to remember a
previously-observed or personally-experienced sequence of body movements. Step 2 is
to reproduce, to act out, to mime the remembered sequences.
Imitating others is widespread in the animal world, even amongst ‘lower’ orders.25 In
many circumstances it is a quick and reliable way of learning useful behaviours. When
hominids’ inherent tendency to spontaneously imitate others began to give way to a
capacity to voluntarily control the timing of such expression, the implied increase in
cognitive development may, in parallel, have allowed the memorising and imitation of
more complex behavioural sequences, eg making fire, making stone tools.
Furthermore, in tandem with a propensity for spontaneous exploratory behaviour, the
capacity to imitate oneself, to voluntarily rehearse one’s own previous behaviours, meant
that behavioural sequences could be practised till perfected---something that other
primates cannot do. Think of how children actively and routinely rehearse and refine all
kinds of action, including facial expressions, vocalisations, climbing, balancing, building
things, and so on (Donald 1991?). Further again, the capacity to voluntarily pause when
practising a behaviour sequence suggests the beginning of a capacity to adapt the
sequence for successful performance under a variety of conditions.26 For example, if a
sequence such as tool making is being practised and conditions such as the lack of
suitable materials do not allow its completion, a pause followed by spontaneous
exploratory behaviour (trial and error, trial and success) might create a variant of the
failed behaviour more suited to the immediate conditions.
It seems plausible then that mimesis, the capacity to act out observed behaviour at will,
could have been the instrument which allowed even early hominids to create and
maintain a simple shared semantic environment, a culture of meaningful (although nonverbal) signs and behaviours. Amongst the tasks responsive to this emerging capability
would have been the voluntary expression of emotions and the transfer and slow
improvement of technical skills. It also opened the way for group rituals involving
numbers of people acting in concert. The challenge in all this of co-ordinating brain-eyelimb activity might well have provided sufficient selection pressure for explaining the
rapid increase in human brain size and complexity over much of the Pleistocene.
Especially mimetic story-telling
Somewhat later (c. 300-400 kya?), in tandem once again with a still-expanding cognitive
capability, the hominid capacity for mimetic communication may have become a
AL Dugatkin , The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene,
Later we will note that a capacity to ‘pause’, not physically as here but while mentally
modelling a behaviour sequence, is a necessary part of being able to ‘solve problems’.
Learning to internalise behaviours which were previously physically observable is indeed a
recurring feature of hominid evolution.
sufficient basis for the evolution of a further suite of cultural innovations, of shared
behaviours with shared meaning.
To quote Donald (1991?) again:
The "meaning" of mimed versions of perceptual events is
transparent to anyone possessing the same event-perception
capabilities as the actor; thus mimetic representations can be
shared, and constitute a cognitive mechanism for creating
unique communal sets of representations. The shared
expressive and social ramifications of mimetic capacity thus
follow with the same inevitability as improved constructive
skill. As the whole body becomes a potential tool for
expression, a variety of new possibilities enter the social
arena: complex games, extended competition, pedagogy
through directed imitation (with a concomitant differentiation
of social roles), a subtler and more complex array of facial
and vocal expressions, and public action-metaphor, such as
intentional group displays of aggression, solidarity, joy, fear,
and sorrow. These would have perhaps constituted the first
social "customs," and the basis of the first truly distinctive
hominid cultures.
Something not on this list of Donald’s, but of great importance, is mimetic story-telling,
the voluntary presentation by a story teller of an extended sequence of mimetic actions--call them mimes---for the purpose of triggering in members of an audience an equally
extended sequence of stabilised memories, ie percepts.27
Perhaps story-telling started as play or as a bonding device or as exploratory behaviour
but, in time, it must have acquired purpose, namely the conveying of information in a
meaningful way, outside the context of the ‘here and now’. The meaning of a single
mime is the percept it first triggers plus any flow-on sequence of related percepts. A
story teller’s sequence of mimes has meaning to the extent that that the whole sequence
of percepts which the sequence of mimes produces constitutes a readily retrievable set.
Note that the word being used is ‘mimes’, not the better-known ‘memes’. Dawkins
defines a meme as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation," meme is
unsuitable for use here because mimes are non-verbal whereas memes can be verbal or
non-verbal..also emphasis in using ‘meme’ is on the spread of new concepts and
behaviours through a population whereas mimetic actions are about communicating using
known signs in a known way Mimes could be more formally defined as mimetic
schemata which preserve something of the temporal and spatial relations in the original
action sequence ]]]]
That is they hang together in terms of time, space, emotional content etc. Isn’t that what
is meant by a ‘story’? Just as in spoken language, where sentences mean more than their
individual words, a mimed story would mean more than its component mimes---the
beginning perhaps of an advance from lexical (word) communication to syntactic
(sentence) communication.
Note also that it is the sequence of mimes as a whole which is voluntary, not just the
component mimes. And that, being voluntary, a mimed story is not produced as a
response to any immediate stimulatory situation; it can be told anywhere
Looked at from a higher level, the great importance of mimetic story-telling is that a case
can be made that the acquisition of this capability was a key step in the evolution of both
spoken language and creative thinking.
Thinking, at its simplest, involves the assembly of a meaningful sequence of percepts/
schemata. For example, mimetic story-telling involves the conversion of a remembered
sequence of percepts into mimes on the part of the story-teller and the conversion of that
sequence of mimes into percepts by the audience. A story-teller who voluntarily mixes
mimes describing aspects of several real world events into one narrative is thinking
creatively, not just chronicling. Any suggestion as to when creative thinking might have
become deliberately associated with an intent to deceive or entertain or solve a problem
would be highly speculative though, eg before or after speech?
Language is not an easy word to define. Functionally, it is a tool for voluntarily
conveying meaning by the use of mutually understood signs. Each sign used evokes an
associated percept and it is sequences of percepts which carry meaning. At the heart of
every language then there is a set of sign-percept pairs. Each sign is code for a percept.
In spoken languages, for example, the signs are arbitrary phonic symbols called words28
and each word evokes its own particular percept in speakers of that language.
Telling a story mimetically can be viewed as using a non-verbal language. It is an
activity which can only occur successfully in a group where most members share a
common repertoire or ‘vocabulary’ of signs called mimes and where each mime
presented evokes a somewhat similar percept (stabilised memory) in most members of
the audience. Mimes are code for percepts. At some stage symbolic signs for percepts,
as distinct from indicative or metaphorical mimes, may have begun to enter non-verbal
language, although it is even hard enough to think of examples of meaningful but truly
arbitrary gestures etc in today’s world. Most seem to be highly stylised versions of
plausible mimetic antecedents, eg pointing at something may derive from throwing a
stone at it.
Words are themselves arbitrary combinations of the three dozen or so phonemes or units of
vocalisation which humans utter.
To the extent that a group of hominids has a common non-verbal language, they can be
said to have a shared view of the world ( a ‘group mind’) based on categories of
experience which collect many similar events or objects under one sign, eg waving the
forearms is the abstracted sign for ‘bird’.29 What seems likely is that, as the hominid
brain developed over the Pleistocene, the set of mime-percept pairs available for nonverbal communication would have similarly grown. One obvious benefit from evolving
such an expanded ‘vocabulary’ would be an improved capacity to share and collectively
exploit information, eg consider the value of a story about the location of a fresh carcase.
Summary of developments in non-verbal communication
It is likely that hominids came into the Pleistocene already equipped with a capacity for
involuntarily communicating emotional states being experienced and with spontaneous
propensities for exploratory behaviour and for imitating simple gestures and postures of
others. There followed, it can be suggested, a step-by-step sequence of developments in
non-verbal communication and thinking skills which led towards the emergence of
spoken pre- or proto-language around the time of emergence of archaic Homo sapiens.
There is no evidence to date-stamp these developments although it can be assumed that
they were somehow in step with the growth and reorganisation of the erectine brain.
1. The first of these developments, representing the beginnings of purposive body
language, might have been a degree of voluntary control (if and when) over the
expression of a small repertoire of emotions, gestures etc. Such voluntary control implies
some cognitive capability for modelling the consequences (with awareness perhaps but
not the reflective awareness of consciousness as modern humans experience it) of
expressing versus not expressing some motor behaviour.
2. The further extension of voluntary control to imitating and rehearsing various
behaviours of others in the social group would have been the step which allowed useful
learned behaviours to be transferred between people and a simple culture to be
maintained, and slowly modified.
3. Once a capacity for voluntary rehearsal of a remembered sequence of one’s own
actions had been acquired, it opened the gate to mimetic story-telling and true non-verbal
language. A necessary condition for communication by language to be possible is a
group whose members share a common set of sign-percept pairs and who have voluntary
control over the expression of those signs (the signs being mimes in the case of nonverbal language).
4. Once established for the recounting of actual experiences, the way would have been
open to use non-verbal language for new tasks (fiction? planning projects?) and for the
group’s common vocabulary of mime-percept pairs to be enlarged, perhaps even to
include some symbol-percept pairs. We do not know.
Robin Allott e-library all words map in to gestures
The transition to spoken language
Given the inherent fuzziness and ambiguity of mimetic
representation, it would eventually have reached a level of
complexity where a method of disambiguating intended
mimetic messages would have had immediate adaptive
benefits. Thus it created conditions which would have
favored a communication device of greater speed and power.
(Donald, M. (1997). Précis of Origins of the modern mind:
Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16 (4): 737-791.
Mimesis was the springboard
Apart from being more limited in what it can convey, a mimetic language differs most
obviously from a spoken language in the type of signs it attaches to mental percepts and
schemata---arbitrary vocal symbols rather than indicative motor mimes. Both types of
language rely on all individuals in a group being able to imitate and remember signs
made by others, to correctly attach each sign to approximately the same percept as others
do and to voluntarily retrieve and use signs as required for conveying the information
carried by the associated percept or sequence of percepts. The suggestion here is that the
cognitive skill to form percepts would have pre-dated the capacity to invent and vocalise
word-signs. Or, putting it another way, vocal and mimetic signs are cognitively
Acquiring a vocal apparatus
The vocalisations of our australopithecine ancestors were probably very similar to those
of apes with alarm calls, grunts and squeals punctuating non-verbal language, just as
gestures embellish modern vocal language. Emotional states would have been expressed
vocally via signals such as cries of pain and joy, laughing, crying, whimpering in fear.
But vocal communication approximating human speech would have required extensive
alterations to the australopithecine vocal tract, as well as a shift from predominantly
subcortical (midbrain) to cortical (forebrain) control over vocalisation. The physical and
cognitive apparatus required for speech can be usefully thought of as a specialised
mimetic sub-system, one for imitating, remembering, recalling and voluntarily
reproducing, not mimes, but, the sounds of spoken words.
It is this system’s ability to produce a dynamic, rapidly changing stream of diverse
sounds that makes spoken language possible. Unlike an involuntary vocalisation which
describes a whole event and cannot be meaningfully disaggregated, advanced speech is
combinatorial; it uses a small number of basic elements---phonemes or syllables---which
are combined and recombined at high speed into words and phrases.
It can be plausibly supposed that evolutionary change in the vocal tract first accelerated
with habitual bipedalism.30 Whereas quadruped locomotion puts pressure on the thorax
and drives breathing in time with steps, bipedal animals (and diving mammals) must be
able to inhale and exhale voluntarily. Controlled exhalation is a prerequisite for laughter,
song and speech. Serendipitously, selection for anatomical changes which enhanced
breath control simultaneously produced changes in the vocal tract which ‘pre-adapted’ it
for speech production. For example, the descent of the larynx (voice box) in the throat,
an adaptation allowing more air to be gulped in, also produced a larger pharyngeal cavity
which would later prove useful for making a variety of vowel sounds. The same
requirement for better breath control, plus dietary changes perhaps, produced the fat lips
and flexible tongue which would later facilitate consonant production. What we have
here is an example of exaptation, meaning that changes being selected primarily to
promote one function (breath control) create traits which, subsequently, are used in the
development of quite another function (speech).
Unlike other mammals, where the vocal tract can be considered a single tube, the human
vocal tract comprises two linked tubes, the pharyngeal cavity and the oral cavity, which
are divided by the body of the tongue. It is an arrangement which allows a much larger
repertoire of possible sounds than a single tube. Because the human tongue is important
in controlling articulation, needing to move rapidly when producing speech, it is
relatively small compared to the tongues of other primates, and extremely well
Human hearing is also adapted to speech. Humans are very sensitive to sounds between 1
kHz and 4 kHz, the range of frequencies within which the human vocal tract resonates
and which characterise the sound of human speech.
Origins of words and sentences
These change in the vocal tract were probably not fully complete until relatively late in
hominid evolution, perhaps only with the emergence of modern humans some 150,000
years ago. Meanwhile there surely would have been intermediate steps on the way to
spoken language. Early erectines may have been able to produce more sounds than
australopithecines but only in slow, relatively unmodulated sequences. It was Charles
Darwin, in fact, who first suggested that prosody, the ability to voluntarily control
volume, pitch and tone, was the initial step towards spoken language. Donald (19??) also
sees prosody as more fundamental than and prior to phonetic control. Perhaps music and
singing, which also rely on a capacity for prosody, are equally old? Perhaps each erectine
had his or her own identifying prosodic song or call?
Julian Jaynes (1976), in his imaginative hypothesising about the origins of spoken
language (as recently as 70 kya he suggests) sees the addition of terminal modifying
phonemes to voluntary prosodic calls as an important turning point, eg modifying the
Bipedalism, it might similarly be noted, had also freed the hands for miming.
ending of a danger call to distinguish between ‘ near danger’ and ‘far danger’. Detaching
such modifiers from the rest of the call and using them in differing circumstances would
have made them the first words; for example, using them as commands to emphasise
gestures when seeking to modify the behaviour of members of a hunting group, eg when
waving someone to go far back. Nouns might have been next---adding a phoneme to a
modifier to indicate more precisely the entity being referred to, eg ‘near lion’ or ‘far lion’.
Notwithstanding, the major transition from ‘one sound-one meaning’ to meaningful
words made up of strings of arbitrary phonemes does remain a mystery.31
Beginnings of syntax
Constructions such as ‘near lion’ are actually simple sentences. They show the
beginnings of syntax in verbal language. Syntactical language has single words for
objects and actions; non-syntactical language has words only for events (made up of
objects and relationships between them). Whereas a different prosodic call is required for
each whole situation being described, a syntactic approach to conveying the same
information implies a capacity to analyse that whole situation into parts and their
relationships and to attach an established verbal sign to each part/relationship. It is easier
perhaps to think of spoken-language syntax as having developed from the pre-existing
syntax of mimetic story-telling. For example, in miming the story of a raptor diving on
its prey, any of the mimes for raptor (noun) or diving (verb) or prey (noun) could be
replaced with vocal-symbol equivalents.
Nowak et al (2000) argue that syntactic communication could have evolved gradually as
the number of needed vocal signals passed a threshold where holding them all in memory
became difficult. Why? The number of vocal signals required increases much more
slowly than the number of events or situations that can be described if the components of
events have their own verbal signals. For example, two ‘words’ have to be remembered
to describe both ‘near lion’ and ‘far lion’ whether the approach is syntactic of not. But to
convey the 12 combinations of ‘near’ and ‘far’ with any of six species requires 12 nonsyntactic words versus eight syntactic words, Due to the possible combinatorial
interrelationships between words, the addition of even one word to a modest vocabulary
will sharply increase the number of additional events which can thereafter be described.
Remember that we are talking here of syntax at its simplest, ie associating words for
percepts which are already associated in a memory. Conventions such as word order in
sentences, or what constitutes a sentence, or the distinction between reportive and
expective statements (ie, tenses ) would have arisen over time as unconsciously learned
William H. Calvin, How Brains Think, Chapter 5
rules for conveying information with fewer misunderstandings. There does not seem to be
much explanatory need to postulate an innate, largely- genetic syntactic capability32
Where do new words come from?
We might imagine that names for animal species were amongst the first nouns and that,
most simply, the sound of the word for a species would be an excerpt from one of that
animal’s calls. And, in time, with group use, the sound used to denote the pre-existing
percept of that species, just like the percept itself, would stabilise. Even today, many
words have such onomatopoeic origins, eg the hiss in ‘snake’. Similarly, we can imagine
that nouns for the emotions would emerge easily from the vocalisations long-associated
with the expression of emotions; thereafter, any story could routinely include a report on
the narrator’s emotional state at the time of the situation being described.
But what of objects and actions without regular sound associations? Here is a scenario.
Suppose someone carrying out behaviour X accidentally makes a distinctive noise, any
distinctive noise, while doing so. Suppose that someone observing and imitating
behaviour X includes that distinctive noise as part of the mimesis. The particular
distinctive noise might first become an habitual part of behaviour X itself and then an
habitual part of the miming of behaviour X during story-telling. Finally, the distinctive
noise becomes detached from behaviour X or the miming of it. Thereafter, when the
distinctive noise is made voluntarily it evokes a memory of the behaviour itself; and vice
versa, It has become an arbitrary vocal symbol for that behaviour. In time, the word and
its meaning (referent) will become stable components of the group’s language repertoire.
Notwithstanding, any new word would stand to undergo continuing slow phonemic
change, making it, for example, easier to say or more distinguishable from other words.
This scenario would have words being created by accident and then persisting because
they are useful. Might there have been, at some time well before modern humans, a
realisation that things and actions can be given arbitrary vocal labels and that this can
assist communication? Such a feat of abstraction, so early, does seem unlikely.
New words expand the range of events and situations that can be described verbally, but
so do old words used in new ways. Once a modest vocabulary has been established,
metaphor becomes an important way for language use, meaning what is describable, to
grow. Metaphor is the use of existing words normally used to describe or name a first
entity as a way of describing or naming some seemingly unrelated second entity. But, for
a metaphor to be useful, there must indeed be some kind of similarity between the entities
or (in the case of analogues) between their relations to other things.
The most useful metaphors not only bestow names on newly-perceived things (and
actions) of importance, they draw attention to the possibility that the second entity (called
(Schoenemann 1999)
the metaphrand) may be similar to the first entity (called the metaphier) in ways not
alluded to in the metaphor itself, ie language is an organ of perception as much as a
means of communication. Jaynes (p 57) gives the example of ‘snow blanketing the
ground’ with its nuances of warmth and comfort until it is Spring and time to wake up.
Equally, metaphors may lose their richness over time and become truly-arbitrary vocal
symbols. For example, ‘concrete’ metaphors may get hidden by phonemic drift and
longer metaphorical descriptions may shrink to short labels. In principle this does not
matter, but it may make metaphorical words harder to remember and increasingly
misunderstood, eg when historians misleadingly translate and interpret terms in ancient
Much more importantly, as each culture built up its own metaphoric conceptualisation of
the world, its verbal language would have become increasingly incomprehensible to
others. Unlike mimetic language which would have been more-or-less understood by
strangers, most metaphoric references are not to universals but are extracted from a local
context and reflect only one culture’s framework of reality. It may be that the origins of
‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking go back to the emergence of verbal languages.
Presumably the metaphors of early verbal language would all have been concrete,
likening something which could be pointed at to something else which could be pointed
at. Abstract concepts which are not observable and therefore can only be described
metaphorically would not have arisen till there was sufficient concrete language to
support them; at the end of the Pleistocene perhaps. For example, an animistic belief
system requires words for the spirits which inhabit the natural world.
Why did language evolve?
All manner of reasons have been advanced as to why spoken language evolved once the
required preconditions (a flexible vocal tract, breath control and a capacity for mimetic
narrative) were in place, even as non-verbal communication was reaching limits to what
it could do.
For example, Dunbar (1993) hypothesises that language evolved to replace one-on-one
grooming which becomes unwieldy as group size increases. Grooming another’s fur is
common amongst primates and widely held to be important for promoting group
cohesion. Increasing group size, despite its negative impact on foraging success, may
have been selected for in response to inter-group competition for limited resources during
glacial advances. 33 Talking to and about others might help one to identify trustworthy
and helpful individuals and to predict others’ behaviours during collective activities. In
particular, he talks about the problem of dividing potentially reliable allies from “freeriding” individuals who habitually accept favours without reciprocating. Somewhat
similarly, coming from an historical perspective, William McNeill and Ernest?/Gellner
33 Bhvl and Brain Sciences 16: 4 1993
are two who have concluded that language is primarily an instrument for maintaining
social cohesion and cooperative action.
Replying to Dunbar, Donald (1993) suggests that language evolved for multiple reasons
simultaneously, one of which might have been ‘verbal grooming’; others that he suggests
include being able to coordinate fighting and hunting, food classification, teaching skills
and forming functional hierarchies. We might add to this list of ‘common sense’ reasons
that speech permits one-to-many communication at night, over long distances and where
there is no line of sight. Also, you can speak when your hands are busy.
Certainly, for language development to have continued as it did, the benefits must have
been very substantial, given the ever-increasing cost of an enlarging brain in terms of
energy required for maintaining and growing the neocortical structures needed for
managing language.
But, in the full context of human history, speech must be seen as much more than a
flexible tool for transferring diverse ’here and now’ information between group members
more efficiently (usually) than non-verbal language. Specifically, the late Pleistocene
saw an acceleration and reinforcement of three trends in hominid culture which could not
have occurred without structured verbal language. The three are a trend towards advanced
thinking, a trend towards the accumulation of ever-more collective knowledge and a
reinforcement of tribalism as a means of social organisation.
Speech improves thinking
As noted above, the hominid brain, at some stage, acquired the ability to voluntarily
recall memories by the overt or covert use of word-symbols as well as by mimetic
imagination. By covert (inner) speech, we mean that words are being articulated but
without motor (muscular) execution. Imagining past acts can similarly be thought of as
mimesis without motor execution. This development of voluntary control over learned
behaviours, including verbal and non-verbal language use, already implies some
cognitive capability for modelling the consequences of one’s actions. For example, as
Malinowski points out, even a skill such as fire making requires a ‘theory” of what will
work and what will not work.34 The suggestion being probed here is that being able to
use symbolic syntactical language would have further improved such modelling
Bickerton (19??), for example, suggests that having symbolic language speeds up
thinking and thereby reduces the time to assemble propositions, stories etc. While
thinking by assembling percepts in imagination (thinking in pictures) is possible without
verbal language35, using word assemblies instead of image assemblies allows for more
Malinowski (Theory of cultural evolution)
Lyra P (2005) Review of José Luis Bermúdez: Thinking without Words, Psyche 11(2) pp112
complex thoughts to be generated within the limitations of short term memory.36 Thus,
the word ‘dog’ makes it easier to think about dogs in general than if we only had separate
words and images for ‘labrador’, ‘spaniel’ etc. The organisation of such assemblies into
syntactic structures (eg phrases, adjective-noun pairs) would further clarify and accelerate
thinking, eg by reducing memory load.
Jaynes (1976, 313) suggests another way in which language aided thinking, While more
instinctive behaviours do not need priming and re-priming on their way to completion,
learned behaviours do and talking to oneself overtly, covertly or in the (contentious) form
of auditory hallucinations may help one to keep focussed on the activity at hand.
Having an established vocabulary, attached to stabilised percepts and extracted by
experience from the environment, also stood to improve thinking by refining the thinker’s
perception of what was being experienced. The reference here is to the speed and
precision with which incoming stimuli could be either discarded or responded to.
And as that vocabulary grew, cognition would have developed beyond basic associative
and reinforcement processes in the sense of being able to tell more complex stories and
more types of stories. For example, an abstract cognitive category is particularly difficult
to think about without using its verbal label. As for types of stories, we might suppose
that verbal story telling, whether overt or covert, would have progressively encompassed
(a) simple factual ‘then and there’ stories linking objects and actions in time and space,
(b) simple fictional ‘play’ stories, (c) problem-solving stories assembling a sequence of
actions recalling or proposing the achievement of some desired outcome (the invention of
‘time’?), and (d) explanatory or ‘just so’ stories embodying a cause-effect chain, teasing
out, step by step, how things got to be the way they are.
Being able to tell problem-solving and explanatory stories would have brought humans to
the brink of ‘constructivist’ (as opposed to ‘observational’) learning, ie to learning
without having followed any direct examples (learning from oneself!). Henceforward, a
hypothetical ‘what if?’ model of behaviour plus consequences could be constructed
before carrying out some novel action. Such a model (story) would or could then be
tested empirically, ie did it work?
Nowadays, we recognise the process of generating an explanatory hypothesis that is
consistent with the known facts as abduction, a way of reasoning that is as legitimate as
induction and deduction.37 Or, from another angle, if meaning is, as suggested earlier, the
recognition of relationships between entities, abduction is a tool or skill for imposing
meaning on what is being thought or experienced.
36 The mental operation we call "imagination" can be seen as mimesis without motor execution of the imagined acts.
CS Pierce
Uncritical thinking
It is important to emphasise here that there are strong practical and emotional rewards
(the aaahah feeling!) from imposing meaning on mental and real-world experiences.
However, one perverse consequence of early modern humans being strongly motivated to
‘search for meaning’ is that if there are factual gaps in one’s story, the brain’s so-called
‘interpreter’ tends to fill them in with entities and relationships which are fictional or out
of context, eg introducing ‘spirits’ as causal agents. As is perhaps illustrated by the
rationalisations offered by people carrying out post-hypnotic suggestions, the brain seems
to prefer any story to no story. More than that, the brain seems to prefer a ‘good’ story
to a ‘bad’ story, ie it tends to choose fictions which are emotionally satisfying over
fictions which rouse negative emotions. Presumably there are many situations where
such flawed stories are still worthwhile in terms of memorability, usability etc, even
though they contain false or redundant elements.
Presently, we will discuss Valentin Turchin’s suggestion that such ‘uncritical’ or ‘precritical’ thinking was the norm in the early stages of speech development;38 and that it
was not till the emergence of civilisations in Mesopotamia some 5-6000 years ago that
humans began to develop a cognitive apparatus (a technology) for changing, once
established, their verbal models of behaviours and causal chains.
Before any arrival of such a capacity to change linguistic models, customary behaviour
based on rigid verbal models was probably pervasive in hunter-gatherer societies; only an
external shock which made those rules unworkable could lead to their reworking. In that
era of uncritical thinking, language would have been playing a paradoxical role. On one
hand, it would have been a very useful tool for the dissemination and accumulation (see
below) of practical information. On the other hand, it carried the potential to lock a
group into false views of how parts of the world worked without any prospect of these
being corrected, views likely to generate maladaptive behaviour in face of a changing
environment.39 Several of these perspectives, including animism (everything is alive) and
the perceived reality of names and images are discussed below.
Speech accelerates information accumulation
We turn now to the second of three trends likely to have been strengthened by having
spoken language available, namely a quickening rate of expansion of the stock of useful
information (knowledge) hunter-gatherer groups could access for guiding members’
Note that the reference is to a whole group’s information stock, not that of any individual.
A group’s collective information is ‘distributed’ in that some information with widelyagreed meaning (eg vocabulary) is held in memory by most members of the group
Turchin V (1970??) The Phenomenon of Science chapter 8
Turchin chapter 8
whereas other information is only held by a proportion of the group or, perhaps, by just
one member, eg specialist information held by fire makers, tool makers, hunters etc.
The starting point for suggesting that the information accumulation rate would have
increased with spoken language, compared with mimetic language, is the idea that
information breeds (new) information. Armed with new information, people behave
differently and have new learning experiences which, if they are communicated to others,
provide those others, in turn, with new information. Note that we are concentrating here
on the contribution to accumulation that comes from sharing and communicating with
others rather than from the accumulation of new information via better thinking (see
above) or novel experiences.
While it may have been very slow for a very long time, there is no reason to doubt that
this process of near-exponential accumulation (ie, rate of increase in the stock is
proportional to its size) was already occurring when non-verbal language was the
medium of communication. However, just as a group’s reserves of useful information
might have begun to grow more rapidly when the sharing of information through mimesis
was added to sharing through genes and instincts, so with speech.
‘I killed a heffelump by myself’. With speech, not only can such an important new
experience be shared using less time and energy than mimesis would require, it can also
be transmitted in more detail and, most importantly (Bickerton 1990 p 172), at any time.
As Berger and Luckman (19?? p 68) put it, language provides a means of objectifying
new experiences and allowing their incorporation into the knowledge stock. And, for
some purposes, such as teaching manual skills, words can be added to the mimetic
instructions to clarify and reinforce them
The rate at which information is accumulated depends on the rate at which it is lost as
well as the rate at which it is generated. There are two points to be made here. One is
that using standard ‘verbal formulae’ allows more memories to be held in readily
accessible form. The other, remembering the hominid propensity to imitate, is that
currently inaccessible memories can be readily retrieved by hearing the right verbal
formula spoken by another. And, if speech did perhaps promote the formation of larger
groups, the probability of such verbal formulae being lost to the group is reduced even
further. That is, information would no longer be automatically lost from the group if it
were lost from the memory of one or several individuals.
Finally, we come to the possibility that speech, by speeding up communication between
people, leaves them with more time, perhaps, to discover useful variants on current
Overall, spoken language is being presented as a development which increased the rate at
which learned behaviour (culture) accumulated in human groups, largely by facilitating
improved cognitive skills and by improving the sharing of information. And it happened
through the underpinning of multiple improvements in the generation, acquisition,
storage, accessibility and communicability of useful information.
Speech reinforces tribalism
Tribalism is a social system in which people live in small, more-or-less independent
groups called tribes. Each tribe, rarely more than 150 people, comprises a number of
regularly interacting clans which may or may not be related (a clan is a group of extended
families whose members believe that they have a common ancestor). It is a social system
in which there is no level of authority above any tribe. Within the tribe, where there may
or may not be an individual leader, collective actions are agreed by reaching a consensus
or agreed by tribal elders or imposed by the leader.
While this description of tribalism draws on contemporary and recently bygone
examples, it is plausible to imagine that, for much of the Pleistocene, erectines and
humans, ancient and modern, lived in roughly comparable social units---perhaps more in
minimally interacting clans or bands rather than tribes. The scenario being suggested
here is that the advent of spoken language might have changed the tribal system in
various ways.
One idea that has already been alluded to is that verbal language, by supplanting timeconsuming physical grooming, did allow groups to build a capacity to cooperate while
opportunistically expanding numbers to levels where the group was more likely to
survive various contingencies. At some group size, even speech-based cohesion must
break down but whether this level is above or below maximum numbers as set by other
constraints (eg the logistics of hunting and gathering) can only be speculated.
Leslie White40 argues that it was speech which allowed the development of cooperative
relationships between families of a tribe. As vocabulary expanded, people outside the
immediate family could be designated, for the first time, as ‘cousin,’ ‘uncle’ etc. This in
turn opened the possibility of inventing incest taboos, a near-universal practice which
allows families to be united by ‘marriage.’ and which, by controlling marriage, can
control the size of the tribe.
For the group as a whole, language can be used to construct tribal histories, origin myths
and other stories which provide all the tribe’s members with a common set of meanings,
explanations and beliefs about the world. The argument from there is that it is easier to
bond with, act jointly with, share food etc with people who have the same ‘mental model’
of the world as you do.
The obverse of this of course is that, much more so than in a mimetic world, a tribe’s
language and its products inadvertently accentuate the perceived differences between
tribal members and others. Even in a homogeneous environment, different languages are
likely to be built on different metaphors. This in turn increases the probability of intertribal suspicion, hostility, misunderstanding, mistrust and, most importantly, the
White Evolution of culture p80
evolution of a dual moral code. Morality is largely a willingness to take the interests of
others into account when making decisions. The suggestion here is that, within the tribe,
attitudes towards others were driven more by amity than enmity whereas this was
reversed in dealing with strangers. What is more, such shared enmity towards others
would have encouraged further bonding within the tribe.
Taken together with low population densities, territorial boundaries and physical barriers
in the landscape, this primal language-driven mentality would frequently have imposed
an isolation on individual tribes which was conducive to their further cultural and genetic
(via inbreeding) divergence.
Selecting for language skills
How the brain-language relationship evolved
We have already spoken of the way in which the hominid vocal apparatus first evolved to
meet a need for improved breath control that came with bipedalism and then further
evolved to also meet the needs of prosodic communication and, eventually, of verbal
communication. Here, we briefly consider the evolution of the hominid brain over much
the same period, viewing it in particular as evolving, first, to coordinate the eye-limb
interaction required for complex mimetic behaviour and, second, to both service and
enable a growing capacity for facial expressions, speaking and thinking. Taken together,
these selective factors probably suffice to explain the brain’s rapid increase in size and
complexity over the last two million years; brain and language have coevolved and
complexified in tandem. Later we will return to the additional idea that over this period
hominid body size was increasing and brain size was therefore also increasing---not just
proportionately but, reflecting a phenomenon known as positive allometry, more than
While there remains much debate over their precise functions, two areas of the human
brain are regarded as centrally important to the production and processing of language.
One is Broca’s area, a portion of the left hemisphere’s neocortex adjacent to the mouthtongue-larynx region of the motor cortex. The other, found adjacent to the auditory
cortex, is Wernicke’s area. Neither is a distinct anatomical structure although Broca’s
area in particular is sometimes thought of as a ‘bulge’. Both these specialist areas are
most simply regarded as developments of pre-existing parts of the brain which have
evolved to service, from nearby, the input and output routes associated with language
exchange, ie Broca’s area to service speech production and Wernicke’s area to analyse
incoming sound. As Deacon (1997) points out, there is no reason to expect language
processes to map directly onto the structural–functional areas of the cortex, not if it is
accepted that the cerebral cortex re-assigns existing processing space is accordance with
tasks being undertaken.
The fossil record shows that Broca’s area (located in a region concerned since the
Miocene with reciprocal gesturing) was already developing in Australopithecus’ 500cc
brain and Wernicke’s area appears in Homo habilis (700 cc). It seems that Broca’s area
was initially a locus for the spinal pathways which permit mimesis and only later
developed the cranial pathways which give the very fine motor control that speech
Why a lateralised brain?
The hominid brain exhibits ‘localisation of function,’ meaning that, unlike other organs,
its different parts do different things; and that not all parts do the same thing. In
particular, for the present discussion, left and right cerebral hemispheres perform
different functions. This hemispheric specialisation, this ‘sidedness’, is called
lateralisation. Thus, much of the speech making-understanding process, along with
numerical and logical thought, is controlled from the left hemisphere of the brain (in
right-handed people). The right hemisphere is dominant with respect to, amongst other
things, perception and expression of emotion, spatial abilities, visual imagery, music and,
generally, diffuse and global operations. These are generalizations of course and, in
normal people, the two hemispheres do work together, sharing information through a
connecting bridge of 200-250 million nerve fibres called the corpus callosum, a bridge
that would have needed increasing capacity with increasing lateralisation.
Are there suggestions as to why the left hemisphere or, better still, one hemisphere,
dominates speech operations? For instance, could the possession of language induce
cerebral asymmetry rather than vice versa? Given that the production of speech requires
rapid and precise motor switching, any management arrangement requiring the
coordination and (relatively slow) exchange of neural information between hemispheres
would appear problematic. For this reason, there may have been a selection pressure for
unilateral control of the speech function. And, for the same reason, there may have been
selection for the speech control area to be close, in terms of path length, to the motor
An alternative view, from Jaynes (1976), speculates that the development of the language
capacities of the left hemisphere occurred very late, and that they were forced into the left
hemisphere by a previous specialisation of the right hemisphere. In his proposal the right
hemisphere became the storage place of mnemonic and hortatory/admonitory formulae
("the voices of the gods") which served to guide complex behaviours. Others have
relatedly proposed that "automatic" or "formulaic" speech is located in the right
hemisphere while "propositional" speech is in the left.
Lateralisation is much more pronounced in the hominid than in other vertebrate brains
and a more general hypothesis as to the origins of lateralisation is that it saved on the
space occupied in non-human brains by symmetrical duplication of behaviour-controlling
processes. That is, for the cost of losing the ‘back-up’ capacity of duplicated control, the
human brain acquired a major increase in overall cognitive capacity when it evolved
towards lateralisation.
Who gets selected?
As language moved from non-verbal towards verbal communication, those with a lowercapacity neural bridge between hemispheres may have been able to acquire speech skills
more readily, or to speak more rapidly---a ‘perverse’ consequence of being less able to
rely on good inter-hemispheric communication. Or, putting it another way, those
anatomically and hormonally predisposed to using a single hemisphere for the task, and,
on the evidence, that meant men more than women, had an easier time picking up the
skills of spoken language.
Sexual selection
This leads to the further idea that there may have been some degree of sexual selection
(also called assortative or non-random mating) for speech skills, ie for males with
smaller corpus callosa. Sexual selection is a process in which people get picked as sexual
partners on the basis of physical or other traits (eg social class) that are preferred within
their society or group, often for reasons that have nothing to do with reproductive
potential. Diamond (19??) gives a salutary example for Europeans of the many ways in
which New Guinean men find European women unattractive. In time, no matter how
small the dependence of the preferred traits on genotype, this leads to significant
genotypic and phenotypic differences between peoples from different societies.
In non-human primates, Small (1993, p.183) notes the ‘Coolidge effect’, namely, that
more than any other variables that stand out to our human eyes, novelty and variety,
appear to be the preferences of females. In the present case, the hypothesis is that, around
40 kya, just as women had previously picked men as procreative partners based on their
(left hemisphere) talents for mimetic song and dance, they now picked men for their skills
with the new story-telling tool. Certainly modern males are more laterally committed
than modern females.
Just as assortative mating has proven problematic for deer with unwieldy antlers and
birds of paradise with enormous tails41, it has the potential in humans to select physical
traits at the expense of mental and behavioural traits leading, for example, to reduced
Baldwinian selection
To be clear, no suggestion will be made here that language skills acquired by an
individual can be directly transferred to that individual’s offspring. There may be a
handful of situations where that Lamarckian process operates (eg acquired immune
responses) but the inheritance of learned behaviours (eg habits) is not one. What does
An alternative, perhaps complementary, explanation for such over-developed features is
that they are allometric by-products of increasing body size (see later discussion of
seem plausible though, sitting somewhere between pure cultural transmission of new
speech skills and traditional Darwinian natural selection for new speech skills, is the
possibility that something called, variously, Baldwinian selection, cultural biofeedback or
genetic assimilation is operating.42
The defining characteristic of Baldwinian selection is that ‘phenotype change precedes
genotype change---but not immediately’ rather than, as classically presented, ‘genotype
change precedes phenotype change.’ At its simplest, Baldwinian selection occurs when a
change in the environment evokes a useful morphological change in certain individuals
(morphological plasticity) and, eventually, in later generations, that same change
becomes genetically ‘fixed’ or ‘assimilated.’ within the population, ie it appears in most
individuals whether or not the original environmental stimulus is present. In the case of
learned behaviours (as distinct from other types of phenotypic change), such as inventing
novel language skills, we will have a version of Baldwinian selection if, over generations,
and as a result of genetic changes to brain or vocal-auditory apparatus, language-learning
becomes easier or more innate or happens more reliably under diverse conditions.
While our concern here is with brain-speech coevolution, there is no shortage of
respected evolutionary biologists willing to attest to the importance of Baldwinian
selection’s role throughout the history of multi-cellular life. Ernst Mayr declared that
‘there is little doubt that some of the most important events in the history of life, such as
the conquest of land or of the air, were initiated by shifts in behaviour’.43 It is a process
which is likely to be especially important for organisms which, like primates, have a great
degree of behavioural plasticity. Notwithstanding, the actual path of evolutionary change
will necessarily continue to be constrained at each step by reigning biological limits to
that plasticity.
When a new useful behaviour is invented by a few individuals there are two
consequences which, in time, stand to affect what is being inherited in the larger
population. One is that the innovators are likely to be more successful reproductively and
hence that their genes are likely to become more common in the population’s gene pool.
To the extent then that above-average learning ability has a heritable genetic basis, the
population’s learning ability will undoubtedly improve over time, including, amongst
other things, the ability to learn the behaviour that first conferred a selective advantage.
But the Baldwinian-selection hypothesis goes further than this. It suggests the existence
of a process, genetic assimilation, in which the previously learned behaviour eventually
becomes genetically embedded, becomes more innate. Suppose that the behaviour
learned was the ability to pronounce certain consonants more distinctly. Genetic
assimilation would imply that, in time, the ability to pronounce those consonants would
For a useful review, see M Pigliucci and CJ Murren Genetic evolution and a possible
evolutionary paradox: Can macroevolution sometimes be wso fast as to pass us by? 2003
Evolution 57(7) 1455-64 e-library review paper
43 Ernst Mayr (1978 p. 55, as quoted in Lieberman 1984)
not have to be learned but would be present in all members of the population from the
time they began speaking. How could this happen? One suggestion is that a widespread
genotype which is plastic enough to allow that new behaviour will be ‘only a few
mutations away’ from a genotype which canalises or prescribes that particular behaviour.
Perhaps, but this is not the place to explore such contested ideas.44
Rather, let us turn to niche construction (Griffiths 2002), this being a second consequence
of individuals learning a useful new behaviour, say, to use the same example, how to
pronounce consonants more clearly. Particularly in social groups, where a large part of
the total environment comprises interactions between individuals, the introduction of any
successful new behaviour changes the environment, the niche, to one where there is now
a pressure to select for genotypes adapted to the new environment, eg one where clear
pronunciation is rewarded.45 And one adaptation which would be likely (but not certain)
to succeed in the newly modified niche would be the very behaviour which redefined the
niche. So, while there is no guarantee of subsequent selection for better pronunciation of
consonants, to the extent that there may be a tendency for mutations which favour that
particular behaviour (as in the genetic assimilation argument), that is an adaptation which
will tend to occur.
The idea that learned behaviour can, by altering the selecting environment and/or by
altering differential reproductive success, have evolutionary consequences is not
contentious. What is contentious is the degree to which that behaviour might eventually
become genetically assimilated, ie more like an innate ‘instinct’, a behaviour that does
not have to be learned at all, rather than something learned by imitation. In the case of
speech, there is debate over whether humans have a genetic capability (genes? hard
wiring?) for ‘universal grammar’ or have a genetically embedded ‘language acquisition
device’. Majority contemporary opinion would be that both speech and syntax are
largely learned skills.46 We do not need to explore this debate, apart from noting that
there are both costs and benefits in terms of survival prospects from replacing learned
flexible behaviours with genetic equivalents. For example, a capacity for flexible
behaviour will be more beneficial in a highly variable environment.
Godfrey-Smith paper on Baldwin boosters and sceptics. A species’ capacity for
phenotypic plasticity under environmental change presumably reflects a past
accumulation of genetic changes (mutations) which, until then, had been selectively
neutral ie neither adaptive nor maladaptive. Several authors have discussed whether the
useful capacity to generate selectively neutral variation is itself open to selection. Conrad
1983, p. 196 King metapations]]
We might note that assortative mating is a special case of niche construction.
Reference needed
Along with the idea from developmental systems thinking that organisms inherit much
more than a genome, the idea of Baldwinian selection, irrespective of how prevalent it is,
reinforces the idea that the plastic phenotype, the environment, the culture and the
genome co-evolve in complex ways; just as, in complex ways, genotype and environment
co-determine the development path of the individual organism.47
Group selection
Now, if some one man in a tribe, more sagacious than the
others, invented a new snare or weapon, or other means of
attack or defence, the plainest self-interest, without the
assistance of much reasoning power, would prompt the other
members to imitate him; and all would thus profit. The
habitual practice of each new art must likewise in some slight
degree strengthen the intellect. If the new invention were an
important one, the tribe would increase in number, spread,
and supplant other tribes. In a tribe thus rendered more
numerous there would always be a rather greater chance of
the birth of other superior and inventive members. If such
men left children to inherit their mental superiority, the
chance of the birth of still more ingenious members would be
somewhat better, and in a very small tribe decidedly better.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Sexual
Selection?? Chapter 5.
Between writing The Origin of Species’ in 1859 and ‘The Descent of Man’ in 1871
Darwin's understanding of the process of evolution underwent a profound but unnoticed
change. As the above quote reflects, he had come to see group selection, based on the
relative fitness of different tribes, to be as important as selection based on the relative
fitness of individuals within a breeding group such as a tribe.
Notwithstanding, there were vigorous debates amongst evolutionary biologists through
much of the 20th century as to where in the hierarchical organisation of life--macromolecules, genes, cell lineages, organisms, groups, structured societies---natural
selection had occurred or might occur. Lewontin (1970) was one who first made it clear
that Darwinian natural selection is a generic process that will occur in any situation where
members of a population of reproducing ‘development-units’ vary from each other in
ways which are both (a) reliably passed on to their descendants and (b) disposed to
differentially affect their capacity to produce surviving offspring.
Tested against these criteria, it is now generally accepted, under what Brandon (1999)
calls hierarchical or expanded evolutionary theory, that selection occurs at multiple
Pigliucci M, 2005, Evolution of Phenotypic Plasticity: Where are we Going Now? Trends in
Ecology and Evolution, 20(9) 481-6.
levels, from macromolecules to cultures, in the hierarchy of biological-social
organisation. The development-units at each level in the hierarchy are being selected
(sorted) by their environment, an environment made up, to a greater or lesser extent, of
relatively larger development-units from ‘higher’ levels of biological-social organisation.
In the case of an individual human, think of it this way: her fitness is a function of her
adaptation to her environment and the adaptation of her environment to its environment
Again, a "gene-environment" interaction occurs between DNA and the local cellular
machinery. Genetic variants are sorted through a process of differential birth rates and
death rates which are a function of organism-environment interactions, ie genetic variants
are selected in the context of the cellular environment. The persistence, or continued
replication, of lower level development-units is crucially dependent on the maintenance
of the organised unit interfacing with the habitat.
The hierarchical perspective emphasises that the results of natural selection are not
‘traits’ in the usual sense of static features possessed by an organism, but relational
linkages between organism and environment. Moreover, these relations are specific to the
situation in which they occur. For example, there is no basis for assuming, as the trait
view does, that an individual who may be socially dominant in a pairwise relationship
will also be socially dominant in a group of five people working on a shared problem.
As earlier noted, moving from non-verbal to spoken language probably accelerated each
tribe’s accumulation of pooled knowledge and the creating of a shared way of
understanding the world, as well as improving individual cognitive skills.48 It is through
speech that pooled knowledge and common mental models can be reliably transmitted
between generations. Meeting that condition would have set the stage for the selection
process to move towards favouring fast-learning tribes as well as fast-learning individuals
within tribes. Under conditions of limited resources, a tribe of intelligently cooperating
individuals stood to outgrow and displace tribes less competent.
After the Mt Toba eruption
The last ice age was a close call for humanity. Greenland ice cores confirm that 71kya
Mt Toba in Sumatra erupted with more force than almost any previous volcano,
producing enough sulphurous gas and ash to darken the sky for six years. Temperatures
plummeted by as much as 21 degrees at higher latitudes around the planet and, in the
northern hemisphere, up to three quarters of all plants may have died. The following
millennium was the coldest of the last ice age.
Berger and Luckmann 1966
A number of scientists believe that this volcanic winter could have reduced the world’s
population of modern humans, those who had been spreading from Africa for some 30
thousand years, to less than 10 000 adults. It follows that all of today’s humans would be
descendants of those few, specifically, according to one hypothesis, those of the few who
survived in (north east?) Africa. If all modern humans come from such a small and recent
founder-group, it would explain why everyone today has very similar DNA despite
humanity’s two million year evolutionary history, ie there has not been time for
mutations etc to accumulate differentially.
This is not the place to review competing models of the origins of modern human beings,
but an interesting alternative hypothesis (Ambrose J human Evolution 1998 e-library ) is
that a handful of small isolated groups across Eurasia and Africa survived Toba and while
all of these started out genetically similar, they were isolated from each other and their
genomes diverged rapidly enough to produce the superficial differences in appearance of
today’s major population groupings, eg Mongoloid, Negroid, Caucasoid.49
Notwithstanding, within perhaps 20 000 years of Toba, humans, spreading at a rate of just
a few km a year, had reached and settled in Australia. This epic movement, if indeed it
was out of Africa and not from further west, could have followed the Indian coastline and
thence to Timor. The presumption here is that hunter-gatherer tribes kept splitting and
moving on as they grew too numerous to be sustained locally. The Aborigines’ final hop
to Australia was helped by a period of rapid glaciation which briefly dropped sea levels
by 80 m and reduced the sea gap between Timor and Australia from 480 km to a more
navigable 160 km.
It is not widely appreciated just how variable climatic regimes were in the late
Pleistocene. While always an ice age, conditions could warm dramatically within as little
as a decade and then cool equally quickly50. These changes appear to have been linked to
the incursion and retreat of warm currents in the North Atlantic in response to the release
of fresh water lakes from behind slipping glacial barriers. As noted, glaciation reached
its peak (called ‘the last glacial maximum’) about 18 000 years ago and was largely over
by 15 000 years ago, although climates continued to fluctuate markedly till about 10kya.
Modern humans reached the Americas about 15 000 (or more) years ago and New
Zealand about 800 years ago. It was another drop in sea level, one associated with this
This is what sometimes happens with invading species that spread rapidly across a new
environment. They differentiate into observably dissimilar ecotypes. The arrival of sparrows
in North America provides an example.
50 Burroughs
final glaciation, which made the Americas accessible from Eurasia, via a dried-out Bering
For post-Toba humans who remained in tropical Africa, the ecological niche they could
exploit in a very tight web of life was small; energy was hard to capture, and sharp
increase in numbers were not possible. However, as people began spreading into colder
dryer regions, supported by the twin technologies of fire and (probably) clothing, they left
their tropical parasites behind and found new energy sources in unexploited populations
of large game animals. Together, these factors (plus better tools?) led to a population
release (a boom) such that there were perhaps four million people world-wide by 15 kya
(Mc Neill 1979).
Over this period, the cultural norms (how to behave) required for successful living were
transmitted between generations by imitation and word of mouth. While there would
have been a degree of selection and novelty in what was passed on, most would have
been handed down unchanged. Neither agriculture nor the herding of domestic animals
were yet practised. Social organisation within tribes was minimal, ie there were few
status differences and everyone did much the same work. In terms of material
technology, the major advance between 70kya and 40 kya was a series of improvements
in stone tools, particularly flaking techniques. For example, the length of cutting edge
obtainable from a source rock improved perhaps 10-12 fold over this period. At one
stage, the most advanced techniques were to be found in Australia and New Guinea.
New behaviours
From the archaeological record, it seems that a cultural shift, one significant enough to be
designated the Upper Paleolithic revolution, began about 40 ka52. That is, it began in step
with the beginning of an intensely cold glacial period that would last till 15 kya and end
the Pleistocene. This was the time when artefacts such as cave paintings and carved
figurines first appeared, particularly in a European core area, and in a variety of forms
which can be clearly differentiated as to time periods, regions and groups (including
contributions from our soon-to-disappear Neanderthal cousins) (Childe p51).
Material technologies
Technological changes during this tail end of the Pleistocene include the disappearance of
heavy tools such as hand axes and choppers (in favour of longer, narrower ‘blade’ tools)
A contrary view, backed by some evidence, is that the Americas could have been
settled by sea-farers much earlier. See burroughs pp.207-17.
The Upper Paleolithic , meaning the last part of the ‘old’is best regarded as a time period,
one lasting from c 40 kya till c.12 ka---not a[[15??] cultural period.
and the introduction of a much wider range of special purpose tools (eg harpoons, darts,
needles), including, for the first time, many made from antler, bone, and ivory. The new
tools and fabrication technologies suggest a major change in patterns of human energy
expenditure, with tools being prepared in advance and retained, rather than made and
discarded expediently. Simple mechanical devices such as the spear thrower and the bow
appeared and allowed muscular energy to be concentrated when despatching projectiles.
Composite tools appeared, eg spears with stone points. More energy was also going into
the construction of semi-permanent structures such as hearths, pavements, and shelters
(some partly underground) built of skins on a frame of bone or wood; evidence perhaps
of a more settled lifestyle.
Survival continued to depend on hunting and gathering although the role of plant foods is
difficult to determine. Despite the intense cold, Europe was a food-rich environment for
well-equipped groups of cooperating hunters. Vast migrating herds of reindeer, bison,
mammoth and wild horse grazed the plains of Russia and central Europe.
There is also evidence for the increasing use of other foods, such as rabbit, fish, and
shellfish. In comparison with large animals, these produced smaller amounts of food, but
they were an important addition because of their greater reliability. What appear to be
hunting nets have been documented in central Europe. In fact, there is conclusive
evidence that products based on plant fibre---cordage, basketry, netting, perhaps textiles--were being produced in central Europe more than 25 kya and, soon after, elsewhere in
Europe, the Near East, and the Far East. While tool remains are more durable, fibre
technologies may have been just as important for survival. In terms of an implicit energy
strategy, effort invested in making fibre products reduced subsequent energy expenditures
or allowed human energy to achieve results (eg, catching fish) which would not otherwise
have been possible.
Symbolism and representation
Representational art in the form of painting, sculpture, and engraving has been widely
documented at Upper Paleolithic sites in Africa and Australia as well as Europe. Animals
and humans are common subjects as well as abstract lines, dots, chevrons etc. Around
the world, people used similar natural materials such as red and yellow ochre,
manganese, and charcoal to create cave art. The earliest known musical instruments also
come from the Upper Paleolithic. Flutes made from long bones and whistles made from
deer feet have been found at a number of sites. Deliberate and careful human burial
becomes more common, often with graves containing tools and personal ornaments such
as bracelets, beads, pendants made of animal teeth, ivory, shells etc.
Trade and migration
Through much of the Upper Paleolithic, waves of modern humans were comprehensively
colonising Eurasia and Australia, gradually replacing, one assumes, any residual
populations of non-modern peoples. The details are being increasingly revealed by
analyses of DNA similarities and differences amongst contemporary human populations.
Evidence of similarities in artistic styles over extended distances (eg podgy ‘Venus’
figurines) suggests that extensive social networks operated throughout Upper Paleolithic
Europe. Some materials, such as flint, semi-precious stones and shells were moved over
hundreds of kilometres. Whether such movements can be interpreted as trade over trade
routes is another question (a motive of ‘gain from trade’ seems unlikely). And to what
extent did these interactions facilitate people exchanges and interbreeding between
tribes? And exchange of information about frontier environments and new technologies?
Collaborative hunting? Ceremonial gatherings?
Aggression between groups
Conversely, did interactions between tribal groups become more violent and aggressive
during the Upper Paleolithic, particularly as glaciers advanced and reduced the land’s
carrying capacity (numbers of people who could be fed) during the last glacial maximum
(20-15 ka)? Despite a lack of evidence, there is indeed a popular school of thought (in
the writings of Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris for example) that tribal groups of the
Upper Paleolithic and well before (Burnet p72???) had a predisposition to attack, for little
or no reason, any other groups they encountered. Indeed, it is often part of this
perspective to suggest that, for a large part of the Pleistocene, groups were being selected
for intelligence on the primary grounds that this enhanced their ability to kill other
humans. Steven LeBlance (2003) argues that lethal inter-group violence and
dispossession was a commonplace response to overpopulation and hunger caused by runs
of poor seasons.53
Such thinking has complex sources, one being the idea that things ought to be like that on
a simple interpretation of Darwin’s thinking. But there are many forms of competition
besides killing. What about selection for intelligence on the primary grounds that it
improves intra-group cooperation and synergy? Another source idea for the ‘killer ape’
hypothesis is that there are species of primates alive today which are highly aggressive
(eg savanna baboons) and, since humans are primates, they must be intrinsically
aggressive. The problem with that argument is that there are other primate groups (eg
Bonobo chimpanzees) which exhibit little externally-directed aggression. Analogical
arguments across primate groups are generally unconvincing.
Perhaps a better argument is that, as noted above, early savanna-dwelling hominids began
acquiring the hormone balance of a predator species as distinct from a prey species. Of
course, aggression towards prey species does not automatically translate into aggression
within and between conspecific (same species) groups. And it has been further
suggested, under the name of shift theory (Lehman 2001), that in selecting males for
language skills, they were also being selected for higher testosterone (the ‘male’
LeBlanc 2003
hormone) levels and hence, eventually, for levels of male aggressiveness more
compatible with a patriarchal than a matriarchal style of social organisation.54
Even though inconclusive, and especially if free of ideological prejudices (eg social
Darwinism), such speculations remain important, given our need to understand the
prevalence of violent conflict in today’s world, To anticipate later discussion, a
reasonable working hypothesis is that human groups, then and now, have/had inherent
tendencies towards both amity (within the group)and enmity (between groups) and that
the expression of these tendencies depends in complex ways on how the young are
socialised and how stressful and difficult it is proving for a group of interest to obtain the
resources it needs.55 We need to keep remembering that behaviour is a function of
nature, nurture and environment.
Social organisation and regulation
It has already been suggested, based largely on relative (male versus female) body size,
that dominance hierarchies within groups were minimal in earlier Homo sapiens and
there is no reason to suggest otherwise for the Upper Paleolithic. Nor is there any hard
evidence from this period that tribes were moving from a clan or collective mode of
decision-making to a hierarchical or chief/leader mode of decision-making. Nonetheless,
this is what happened.
Karl Polanyi, in his revelatory book, The Great Transformation, argues convincingly that
late Pleistocene economies were based on reciprocity and sharing and that this mode of
economic organisation came to influence (coevolved with?) many other aspects of social
organisation, including the shared ideas which reinforced that system. Thus, the
suggestion is that Upper Paleolithic humans never hunted or gathered food for just
themselves or their immediate family but rather for sharing with the whole clan or tribe.
This is not a new idea, or a new behaviour, it should be pointed out. Paleontologists, eg
Isaac Glynn, have traced food-sharing behaviour back to the beginning of the
Reciprocation implies that when one tribal member gave to another, they would expect
something of equal worth in return, either from the recipient or someone else. For
example, if I give you food you will give me equivalent food or will help with some task
etc. I might not get something back immediately, but the recipient has to reciprocate
within a certain time or lose standing. An ongoing failure to reciprocate could lead to
exclusion or expulsion. As an aside, a broader concept of reciprocation, one between
Lehmann, A Glozel Newsletter 6.5 2001 A.Lehman Exploring patterns in neuropsychology
for support for an alternative theory of evolution pp1-9
55 Stephen LeBlanc with Katherine Register(2003) Constant Battles: The Myth of the noble
Savage, St Martin’s Press, New York.
56 Isaac Glynn
humans and the forces of Nature, may lie behind the practice of sacrifice at a later stage
in human history.
The ongoing success of such a system relies in the first instance on each individual being
willing to contribute to the ‘economy’ according to their capabilities and trusting others
to do likewise. This in turn requires that the young be so socialised. And, to reinforce
such learned behaviours, there would be a place for sanctions (exclusion, shaming)
against ‘free riders’ and cheats, and, perhaps, a place for external (cf internal) rewards for
above-average contributions. On the latter, for example, successful hunters might be
preferred mates. Perhaps also, as Polanyi suggests, rituals and ceremonies evolved,
partly at least, to ensure that reciprocation went smoothly.
The economic cum social system being described here is remarkably complex, involving
as it does behaviours such as trust, sexual selection, socialisation, delayed reciprocity,
sanctions, rewards etc. But are such enough? Could such a system function without
well-developed language? Mention has already been made of the hypothesis that
language evolved to replace grooming as a bonding device in larger groups; and as a tool
for ‘social bookkeeping’. Paul Mellars (1989, 1996b) is one archaeologist who, judging
from technology shifts and the appearance of imagery as well as beads and pendants,
suggests that fully modern language and symbolic expressions emerged at or slightly
prior to the Upper Paleolithic.57 The way to view the role of language in the Upper
Paleolithic revolution might be as one of allowing, even accelerating, useful
complexification within a pre-existing but simpler economic system. That is, language
improves decision-making today at the price of complicating decision-making tomorrow.
From tribes to chiefdoms
Except in extreme circumstances where only a few can survive, a tribal system based on
self-organised reciprocity and sharing within the tribe would seem to be a sound strategy
for smoothing out unpredictable food supplies and maximising group survival prospects.
The process may well have been further routinised by following ritualistic procedures.
And yet it is widely accepted that, by the end of the ice age, hierarchical governance
systems centred on a tribal chief or leader with some degree of coercive power had been
invented and become commonplace.
Was this just a natural development of an established primate instinct to accept
dominance-submission relationships? How else might this change in decision-making
processes have occurred? As an example, think of deciding when and where to hunt. In
Mellars P. 1996b. Symbolism, language, and the Neanderthal mind. See Mellars &
Gibson 1996, pp. 15–32 in Mellars P, Gibson K, eds. 1996. Modelling the Early Human
Mind. Cambridge, UK: Mc-Donald Inst. Archaeol. Res.
long-established bands and small tribes, custom and tradition might simply dictate the
answer. Everyone would just know what the group was going to do. Under unseasonable
or other unusual conditions, and with the help of verbal language, the question might be
discussed till consensus emerged. Given a strong similarity in the vocabulary, concepts
and inbuilt behaviour rules understood by each individual, the perceived options might be
few and consensus readily achievable. However, there could perhaps be a place for a
‘chairperson’ to articulate, nothing more, that consensus had been reached. And, in
particularly unusual circumstances, the long memories of tribal elders might contain
candidate options not familiar to younger people.
Under even more difficult and pressing conditions, during, say, emigration into new
territory, the ‘chairperson’ might have to choose , hastily, among whatever options are
being perceived and, in doing so, become a leader for a time. Or, different leaders might
emerge in different situations Still, we can only speculate about governance processes in
the Upper Paleolithic, and be informed but not blinkered by observations on
contemporary hunter-gatherer societies.
So, speculating further, another area of tribal life where, on occasions, it could be useful
to have non-consensus but rapid decision-making is daily food distribution. A need for
some degree of task specialisation (division of labour) is beginning to appear in the
Upper Paleolithic, along with activities such as art and music and the use of new food
sources. Reciprocation is quite transparent when all contributions are of the same type;
symmetrical exchanges within small groups of families might suffice. But, on the
(major) assumption that exchanges have to be seen as ‘fair’, how do you equate
contributions which demand the same effort but yield different results? There is no right
answer, but, so the hypothesis goes, people might accept the judgements of a leader who
is trusted and recognised as trying to be fair. This in turn might lead to acceptance of
pooling and redistribution of all the day’s acquisitions. If the leader’s redistributions
came to be seen as unfair or self-serving, she or he would be simply replaced.
This idyllic system was not to last. Some time before recorded history began, leaders
were becoming, to use William McNeill’s word, macroparasites; tribes were becoming
chiefdoms. Relying, perhaps, on religious authority, or enforcers, ‘permanent’ chiefs,
often hereditary, were learning to make decisions reflecting a degree of self-interest as
well as keeping their increasingly complex societies functioning. This was the solution
which evolved from an increasingly unworkable system based on reciprocation, sharing
and trust. Perhaps the value of an aggressive chief able to lead the defence of a home
territory against refugee groups or covetous neighbours outweighed any loss of trust and
fairness. Having a social technology for selecting a leader would certainly have been
conducive to social stability at times of leadership transition. More generally,
possibilities for innovative behaviour may have been greater without the inertia of group
thinking; the individual mind is a better problem-solving tool than the group mind. And,
once chiefdoms were established, perhaps people did not have the cognitive skills to be
able to question this new system of governance.
New minds
The Upper Paleolithic revolution probably saw the transformation of human minds as
well as human behaviours. Indeed it is that revolution’s marked changes in economic and
social behaviour and in material and social technologies which first suggest the arrival of
new ways of thinking and new things to think about. For example, a cultural artefact
such as a necklace suggests a capacity to think symbolically. Perhaps it is better to think
of the Upper Paleolithic revolution as a time of change in humanity’s underlying capacity
to form and use culture rather than simply as a time of rapid cultural change?
Turning from the material record to speculation, what might have initiated the Upper
Paleolithic revolution and what can be inferred about the developing mentality of Upper
Paleolithic people? Assuming that language was already reasonably well-developed (and
some would disagree), the simplest suggestion here is that as the scope, vocabulary and
fluency of language increased, as described earlier, there was an even faster expansion
(positive feedback) in each tribe’s pool of technological knowledge and their common set
of meanings, explanations and beliefs about the world.
Perhaps there were genetic and neuroanatomical changes as well as language-driven
cultural changes, for example a mutation which markedly increased language capabilities.
Or mutations which allowed information from different parts of the brain to be
coordinated rather than processed in relative isolation [klein??fluidity??]]? There may
well have been such changes but, if they occurred, it was likely to have been much
earlier, perhaps 150 kya when modern humans are thought to have evolved from archaic
humans.58 It is commonly believed that there has been little change in brain anatomy
since then. What cannot be revealed by the fossils on which such thinking is based are
changes in organisation (pathways etc) within the brain.
Primitive thinking
We can only infer the characteristics of primitive minds from ethnographic studies of
contemporary hunter-gatherers, from studying the developing minds of children and from
some limited archaeological evidence. Even then, questions abound. Would a person
from the late ice age, say 20 kya, be able to understand and answer a question as to
whether they had a spiritual sense of feeling at home in their environment? Or who they
were? Or what tribe they belonged to? Or why they had behaved so in some what-to-do
situation? By what-to-do situations I mean situations of hesitancy or doubt or stress
where none of habit, tradition, custom, instinct, emotion etc dictates automatically how to
behave; in general, problems that have not as yet been routinised. Indeed, did anyone ask
any questions then? Were they conscious in the same way as readers of this book are
conscious? The answer to the last is almost certainly No, but we will come to that.
[[??[Mayr 2001, p. 252 what evolution is]]] Basic books New York.
Still, despite the ignorance and uncertainty, there is a measure of agreement amongst
paleo-anthropolgists as to what post-speech minds may have been like prior to, and,
probably, for a while after, the Neolithic revolution (see below). We will discuss this
mainstream view under the headings of (a) animism and magic and (b) cognitive and
representational skills.
Animism and magic
It was suggested earlier that, under a broad rendering of their motivations, humans and
their ancestors have drives (generalised instincts) for autonomy (self-assertion), for
bonding with others and for meaning, the last being an urge to explain things. Animism is
the belief system widely held to have been at the heart of the primitive or pre-critical
mode of thinking and imposing meaning on the world which emerged in parallel with the
emergence of spoken language. In animism, the behaviour of natural phenomena, both
living and non-living, is explained by assigning (all) objects (including places) and
processes a human-like agency, a spirit, with a capacity to act intentionally. To take an
important example, this means that dead people are still alive in some sense. That might
further mean, for instance, that one leaves food out for corpses or that the dead can still
Furthermore, in many of the world’s contemporary hunter-gatherer populations, and
perhaps in the most recent ice age, a common extension of animistic thinking is the idea
that the world is further populated with invisible spirits, ‘ancestors’ perhaps, which are
not attached to particular real objects and processes. Other elaborations of animistic
thinking include ‘essences’ such as souls and ‘real’ objects which are only visible to
certain people.
It is challenging to even speculate as to the origins of animism but one suggestion is that
it is an unsurprising product (as indeed is the drive for bonding with other humans) of the
sort of symbiotic consciousness (to use Arthur Koestler’s term) or participatory
consciousness (to use Jay Earley’s term) which early Upper Paleolithic humans
enjoyed59. It is hypothesised that this form of consciousness involved people having
feelings of being connected to and belonging, metaphorically, to the world around them.
More prosaically, it can be suggested that people had not yet learned to distinguish
between external objects and events and the mental images representing them. Given that
these people would hardly have been able to express (inadequate vocabulary) or see
introspectively that they were having such feelings (if they were!), consciousness seems
too grand a term here, except perhaps that it flags a contrast with the sort of reflective
self-aware consciousness that emerged after the advent of civilisation. While we cannot
step outside our own consciousness and imagine symbiotic ‘consciousness’, perhaps it
Earley, J. (1997). Transforming Human Culture: Social Evolution and the Planetary Crisis.
Albany: SUNY Press.
Koestler A The Ghost in the machine Pan edition 1970 London p277
was like being in a vivid dream where things just happen (no sense of causal process) and
one responds reflexively?
Magic goes hand in hand with animism and is the idea that the behaviour of the ‘spirit
people’ in things and processes can be influenced advantageously by appropriate human
activity; for example, that the weather can be influenced through symbolic activities and
rituals such as rain dances. A shaman is someone with developed magical skills.
Early anthropologists, such as James Frazer of ‘Golden Bough’ fame, described magical
thinking in terms of two ‘associative laws’, contagion and similarity.60 The law of
contagion is summed up by the idea that when objects come into contact, there is a
permanent exchange of properties between them and they remain causally connected
thereafter. For example, contact with an object considered to be impure will transmit the
impurity to the handler, who cannot be rid of it without recourse to purification rituals.
The law of similarity is based on the notion that ‘image equals object’ or, more generally,
that similar things are causally connected. Operations on one are automatically
(magically) carried out on the other. For example, when a 20 000 year old Cro-Magnon
cave painting shows a spear in a bison, some real bison was being supposed to have a
similar experience in store. Rituals are behaviours which imitate some aspect of the
desired result, eg sprinkling water on the ground during a rain dance.
Similarly for words as well as images and rituals. Once the percept has been formed,
every time a swan (say) appears, the word ‘swan’ also reliably appears. It is a small step
from there to believing that the name of an object is part of the object, a belief behind
many magic rituals, taboos etc.
Before smiling, take note of the survival of these two principles of magical thinking into
modern times, for example when demonstrators hang or burn public figures in effigy.
Also, to the extent that it is introducing an associative sense of cause and effect, magical
thinking is the precursor of scientific thinking. And painted images may have been
precursors to writing. Here is Ashley Montagu’s sympathetic perspective on magical
The trouble with the non-literate is is not that he isn’t logical,
but that he applies logic too often, many times on the basis of
insufficient premises. He generally assumes that events
which are associated together are causally connected. But
this is a fallacy which the majority of civilized people
commit most of the time, and it has been known to happen
Frazer, James George. 1922. /The Golden Bough. Abridged Edition/.New
among trained scientists! Non-literates tend to adhere too
rigidly to the rule of association as causation, but most of the
time it works, and by the pragmatic rule what works is taken
to be true.61
Cognitive and representational abilities
First, it bears repeating that hypotheses about the minds of Upper Paleolithic people rely
heavily on backcasting from ethnographic studies of remnant hunter-gatherer
populations. Having said that, let us speculate boldly.
What is most surprising to present-day people about the minds of early hunter-gatherers,
as hypothesised, is not their animistic-magical models of reality but the extreme
resistance and insensitivity of these ‘pre-critical’ minds to the data of experience. To
moderns, pre-critical thinking is inconceivably conservative and closed. Not only is there
no capacity to question beliefs, rules, customs etc, there may not even have been a
capacity to formulate any questions, given that asking a question implies the possibility
of alternative answers. Obvious facts which, in our opinion, would, ineluctably force
someone to reconsider certain convictions do not, for some reason, have any effect on
them at all.
While it is not an explanation, it helps to recognise that the pre-critical mind made no
distinction between belief and knowledge. Or perhaps not helpful: Bertrand Russell in
Analysis of the Mind 62 says that, at first sight, knowledge might be defined as belief
which is in agreement with the facts. And then says, ‘The trouble is that no one knows
what a belief is, no one knows what a fact is, and no one knows what sort of agreement
between them would make a belief true’63. Notwithstanding, for pre-critical minds,
animism and magic constituted a knowledge system, not a belief system.
Turchin provides a further insight into pre-critical thinking by contrasting it with critical
thinking, a capacity which he sees as only beginning to emerge in the irrigation
civilisations of the Middle East some six thousand years ago.64 Critical thinking allows
alternative verbal models of problem-solving behaviour or explanations of reality to be
compared and for just one of these to be adopted as a working model. In logic, this
selecting of the particular explanation which is better than its rivals is called the law of
sufficient grounds. The law of sufficient grounds is absolutely foreign to pre-critical
Montagu A, 1957, Man: His First Million Years, World Publishing Company , New York.
[[Gutenberg 76]]]
62 1921
Russell then relents enough to say that, speaking broadly, it is our ‘verbal habits’ which
crystallise our beliefs, and afford the most convenient way of making them explicit.
Turchin chapter 8
thinking. It is here that the ‘metasystem transition’ which separates modern thinking
from primitive thinking is seen most clearly. Turchin locates this transition from the
uncritical brain to the choosing brain in the emergence of linguistic activity directed to
linguistic activity, ie in thinking about thinking. Thus, it is not enough to think about
something: one must also ask why one thinks that way, whether there is an alternative
line of thought, and what would be the consequences of these particular thoughts. If a
chosen action does not work, one asks why not.
Because pre-critical thinking cannot reject a belief once formed and stands to generate
multiple animistic explanations for any situation and, also, because it cannot organise or
integrate these multifarious beliefs, pre-critical thinking is riddled with contradictions and
misperceptions. Not to put too fine a point on it, pre-critical thinking would appear to be
next to useless for yielding rational (ie, likely to succeed and likely to improve things)
responses to novel what-to-do situations. Despite their cultural developments and their
practical achievements, Upper Paleolithic people would still have been reliant on
instinctual responses and random exploratory behaviour in what-to-do emergencies not
envisaged by custom and tradition. Thinking was not a tool for solving problems at this
Representational abilities
I remain, therefore, entirely unconvinced that there is any such
phenomenon as thinking which consists neither of images nor of
words, or that "ideas" have to be added to sensations and images
as part of the material out of which mental phenomena are built.
Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, Ch 11
We can suppose that over the long Pleistocene humans developed an increasing capacity
to mentally reproduce (imagine) visual and auditory perceptions that had been stored in
memory. Without (imagined) images, there can be no awareness of past or future, only a
fleeting present filled by impressions, emotions and bodily impulses (eg defecation).
There can be no differentiation of inside and outside; no awareness of a boundary
between self and other; no different categories for internal experience versus perceptions
of external objects and events. A sense of time is not possible if past perceptions cannot
be retained in the mind and then invoked.
We can also suppose that this process of forming stable cognitive categories would have
been much enhanced with the emergence of language, both non-verbal and verbal. This
is because the scope (what is to be included) of a percept associated with a ‘fixed’
linguistic symbol could be cumulatively refined over time. The ‘symbiotic’ external
world would increasingly have been categorised into discrete parts by cerebration, by a
process of ‘carving nature at the joints’ in search of practical distinctions.
Notwithstanding, people’s repertoires of verbal representations (likenesses) of persons,
relationships, social systems, mortality, the self and many other less-concrete concepts
familiar to contemporary humans would have been small. Another way of saying this is
that those ancestors did not yet have a vocabulary which would allow them to think about
these things; a characterisation that depends on the idea that a large part of what we call
thinking is talking to oneself (perhaps out loud in those days?). Sometimes the
conversation is one-sided, sometimes not. Thoughts are the separate sentences in that
The more general suggestion to be made here is that cognitive and representational
achievements would have advanced arm in arm through the Upper Paleolithic. You can't
think about thinking if there are no words for thoughts, memories, questions etc. A
tribe’s vocabulary and shared verbal habits was its collective model of reality, changing
but slowly over many generations, eg words changing meaning, beliefs falling into disuse
(as distinct from being rejected).
Consider, for example, how the very useful concept of oneself. might have evolved.
Once language had developed to the point where individuals were given names, the stage
would have been set for people to be able to learn to represent themselves mentally and
verbally, to develop. an inner working model of oneself, a self-sense. Drawing on
Thomas Jordan’s speculations65, something of what this might possibly have meant
initially can be suggested, namely, an ability to describe one’s own behaviour in the third
person, although largely in bodily rather than mental terms. The capacity to recognise
that one is having thoughts and that these are an important part of oneself (and ditto for
other people) would come much later. This elaboration of the sense of self is called
individuation, the term being the same whether it is taking place over an individual life or
over hundreds of generations.66
We will return to the evolution of critical and conceptual thinking when we come,
presently, to the next great revolution after the upper Paleolithic, namely, the post-glacial
Neolithic revolution.
Dependence of the individual on the group
Notwithstanding the emergence of language and, later, of chiefdoms as means of social
co-ordination in hunter-gatherer societies, it seems likely that Upper Paleolithic tribes
functioned like super-organisms, made up of people with a very weak sense of self; not as
collections of individuals well aware of their bodily and mental differences from others.
In The Gutenberg Galaxy (p18), Marshall McLuhan suggests that tribal people learn to
regard themselves as rather insignificant parts of a much larger group and not as
independent, self-reliant entities. Personal ambition and initiative are permitted little
outlet and a meaningful integration of experience along personal individualistic lines is
never achieved. Indeed, the very possibility of “thinking for oneself” is scarcely even
acknowledged; and, if it does occur, it is shunned, not only by others but by the thinker
refere website
Fromm 1942 pp23-25
hirself. In contrast to this intellectual constriction, tribal society allows the individual
considerable temperamental freedom---to be extroverted and express one’s feelings
As noted above, people then would have had little capacity to model consequences and
choose, neither consciously nor unconsciously, between alternative behavioural options
in what-to-do situations. But would that evaluative skill have been needed anyway? In a
reasonably stable environment, habit, custom and tradition based on past learning would
have adequately guided behaviour much of the time. And in a few recurring classes of
emergency situations, instinctual and spontaneous group responses, guided by rapid
communication of emotional states (anxiety, fear) would have been triggered. Imitating
the behaviour of a recognised chief, and obeying his/her verbal commands, would have
further served to synchronise and co-ordinate individual behaviours. Because role
differentiation was minimal (male hunters, female gatherers, the old and the young), there
would have been little need for unique individual responses.
In fact, it goes further than that. In the harsh conditions at the end of the ice age, many
tribes would frequently have been on the brink of extinction. Under those circumstances,
any innovative deviation from inculcated ‘proven’ behaviours would have carried high
risks. Perhaps, until conditions improved as the ice age ended, there could even have
been selection against cognitive skills!
Implications of a weak sense of self
Tribal people would have had physical and stage-of-life differences from each other of
course, but mentally, it is being suggested, they would have had few differences and little
awareness of how they differed from others---what has been called the membership
mind67. They probably had short time-horizons, a poorly developed sense of past and
future which, if so, would have made it difficult for an individual to undertake sustained
tasks (eg travelling to a distant hunting ground) for which the rewards were not
immediate; they would have been unable to envisage an extended sequence of activities
and consequences leading to a goal. Here, perhaps, lies the origin of group rituals which
use rhythmic, coordinated, invariant, mimetic movements which reinforce the emotional
appeal to the individual of the task or wish being pursued, eg singing, chanting. Indeed,
ritual, and imitative behaviour in general has to be recognised as a social coordination
mechanism, along with drives-instincts, shared emotion, tradition, custom and verbal
We might also note that having short time horizons and a weak self-sense would make it
difficult for individuals to play and sustain specific roles within the tribe. Even chiefs
might have needed group support on occasions.
Wilber ??
Another implication of weak self-sense is that impulsive, emotional behaviour stands to
swamp the individual’s fragile, tentative attempts to act intentionally to satisfy his/her
vague wishes. To control anti-social behaviour, the tribe would have had to rely on
individuals conforming to custom and obeying taboos (avoiding forbidden behaviours).
Conscience (internalised social rules) [see Berger& Luckman]]] and guilt about breaking
rules would not have, as yet, appeared. Morality would have consisted in ‘not getting
caught’. Conversely, active deceit of others would have been minimal prior to people
having an awareness of how their own minds functioned. Without such awareness a
deceiver would have no basis for modelling and then exploiting another’s behaviour.
What is that person thinking about me? Once established though, a capacity to deceive
would have been much facilitated by language. Especially among people who had little
capacity to critically evaluate linguistic statements, lies about others would be readily
This chapter is yet another version of the story of how the human lineage and human
social groups might have evolved. And, like all stories, it has a provenance, it has foci, it
has in-built constraints and it has a purpose. The very word ‘lineage’ signals that this is a
story which assumes that humans and pre-humans and their social groups have been
changing in significant ways even as they have been surviving for millions of years.
Thus the chapter takes up the story of hominid evolution with the evolution of placental
mammals (125 mya) into primates (65 mya) who took to the trees to live during the
Eocene (55-38 mya). There, in east Africa, they stayed until the branch68 of the great
ape family from which humans evolved moved from their declining gallery-forest habitat
to an open forest (savanna) habitat (5 mya). Perhaps 3 mya the first ‘species’ of the
Homo genus (Homo habilis) became identifiable; and, by 2 mya. as the Pleistocene epoch
and its ice ages approached, Homo erectus had not only evolved from H. habilis, but was
on the brink of migrating out of Africa into distant parts of Eurasia. It was from the
erectines who remained in Africa that archaic forms of H. sapiens evolved circa two
hundred thousand years ago. And it was perhaps a hundred thousand years ago that
groups of modern H. sapiens began moving out of Africa en route to settling the whole
world, displacing any remnant erectine populations in the process. The chapter takes the
story to the end of the last ice age (15 ka) and into the period just before the Neolithic
revolution (12 ka) when some humans stopped being full-time hunter-gatherers and
began growing crops and domesticating herd animals.
It has been necessary, for space reasons, to keep the chapter as short as possible
consistent with telling a story which does not leave too many gaps and which is
I am reminded of the joke about the aristocrat who claimed that his ancestors’ family tree
went back to the time when they lived in it.
substantive enough to yield---if they are there---some principles and facts applicable to
better managing social change today. Despite the considerable competent effort that
scholars have put into reconstructing the human story, hard evidence is limited,
particularly when trying to understand such important intangibles as the emergence of
language, beliefs and cognitive skills. Often the difficulty is more one of knowing when
some change occurred rather than what occurred. For example, estimated dates for the
emergence of developed language vary by more than a hundred thousand years.
Unequipped as I am to explore every alternative hypothesis, I have used a ‘satisficing’
approach of looking through the literature for answers to my what-when questions up to
the point where something ‘plausible enough’ turns up69.
How then can we most simply understand, give meaning to, this fragile story of hominid
evolution? A good starting point, so obvious that it might be overlooked, is that the
hominid lineage was there at the start of the Pleistocene and there at the end. Unlike
most biological lineages that have ever existed, it survived. Tautologically, just as
survival of the fitter means no more than survival of those that survive, extinction is the
fate of species that fail to reproduce themselves!
When is a species vulnerable to extinction?
More usefully, we might ask what makes a lineage more or less vulnerable to extinction,
to becoming the end of the line? But still there are no operational answers. Any lineage
and the environmental niche (adaptation zone) in which it is located are undergoing
continuous change, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Considered together, a lineage
and its niche constitute a developmental system, importing and exporting energy and
materials like other dissipative systems.70 What is transferred between generations is not
traits, or blueprints or symbolic representations of traits, but developmental means, call
them resources or interactants, While some resources persist independently over
generations (eg sunlight), others are transmitted from parent to daughter generation (eg
genes). Once brought together, the resources in a developmental system spontaneously
interact (self-organise) to produce a new generation of organisms.
There is, in principle, a joint set of niche specifications and of lineage specifications
within which the lineage can survive (its ‘survival space’) and vice versa; the
developmental system can be thought of as ineluctably moving through ‘survival space’.
Abduction Process of generating an explanatory hypothesis that is consistent with the
known facts explain satisficing too.history as telling coherent stories
Reference on developmental systems theory Grey and Griffiths?? Oyama (1985) Producing
a species-typical phenotype requires the interactions of a species-typical genotype and a
species-typical environment. The developmental systems concept is an attempt to recognise
that phenotypes are not the product of nature nor of nurture but of interaction between the
So, it can be suggested that when the specifications of the niche-lineage system are
approaching the boundary of the system’s ‘survival space’ the lineage is vulnerable to
extinction. Unfortunately, those boundaries are only knowable in a very general way.
One well-recognised process which tends to make a species less vulnerable to extinction
is adaptation. Somewhat confusingly, this word is also the name given to the products
of the adaptation process, these products being themselves processes. Adaptation is a
process of natural selection71 which produces adaptations. An adaptation is an
unprecedented process (including physiological-biochemical processes, behavioural
traits, building anatomical structures), which, once spread through a population of related
organisms, increases that population’s capacity to survive and reproduce, at least in the
short term, In general, adaptations work by amplifying/reshaping some of a species’
behavioural or reproductive possibilities, eg natural selection for incrementally longer
necks made it possible, eventually, for the giraffe to browse on tall trees. In energy
terms, successful adaptations allow a species to maintain or increase energy throughput.
But the consequences of adaptation do not end there. When a species’ behaviour
changes, the environmental niche it is occupying will necessarily be changed also, in as
much as the species will be taking in and exporting energy and materials in a somewhat
different way. The effect may be large or small but, either way, there will be a tendency
for natural selection to then produce further adaptations in the species. This in turn will
further change the niche; what is being initiated here is a process of circular causation in
which the lineage and the niche will continue to co-construct each other (Odling-Smee et
al 2003). For example, the giraffes’ browse trees get eaten out (local extinction) or the
trees themselves co-adapt, generation on generation, by growing still taller. In the latter
case there will be a tendency for giraffes with even longer necks to be selected.
The giraffe example illustrates the point that some traits in some interbreeding
populations continue to evolve, over very long periods of time, through a cumulative or
‘directional’ sequence of adaptive changes, implying that each successive change does
something to increase the population’s capacity to survive and reproduce---not
necessarily in absolute terms but relative to reproductive capacity in the absence of such
adaptation.72 A trait will stop evolving when its further change is no longer genetically
(differential reproductive success, within a species, of phenotypes carrying different
genotypes) [[[[[the differential reproduction of heritable variants of developmental
systems due to relative improvements in their functioning. (Wills 19??)]]] [[the niche
which is being passed on from generation to generation of a developmental system is
slowly changing]]]]
Thomas Huxley called this a process of ‘progressive adaptation’ but ‘progress’ is a
problematic word to be avoided when possible.
possible or reproductively useful, whichever comes first. Here it can be noted that, like
all animals, hominids have been somewhat restricted in their genetic plasticity, their
intrinsic possibilities for directed evolution, simply because, unlike plants and singlecelled protista, they have a fixed body plan under which, for their effective functioning,
limbs and organs depend on each other in complex ways. That makes it difficult to
change one character without disrupting other characters (called channelling or
A niche’s characteristics are changing continuously, not only being modified in response
to its lineage’s adaptive disturbances, but also in response to ongoing noise, fluctuations,
shocks and trends in the material-energy flows through the larger systems which enfold
every niche-plus-lineage developmental system. For example, there will be changes in
energy flows through the food web of the lineage’s enfolding ecosystem. eg changes in
populations of parasites, predators or food species. In turn, these changes might be
reflections of flow-rate changes in climate, landscape, soils, waterbodies or other aspects
of the Earth’s larger, slower material-energy cycles. As a consequence of niche changes,
formerly adaptive traits can become maladaptive (hinder survival and reproduction) and
disappear from the gene pool while other preadaptive as-yet-uncommon traits74 might
acquire an enhanced survival value and become increasingly common.
In a general way, any extant species has to adapt genetically at a sufficient rate relative to
the rate at which it is changing its niche, or its niche is changing, or it goes extinct.
Needless to say, what constitutes a sufficient rate is context dependent. Still something,
admittedly non-operational, can be said. In a rapidly changing environment a genetically
diverse species, one with a heterogeneous gene pool, is more likely to survive on the
grounds that it is more likely to be pre-adapted; as is one which is adaptable, ie which
generates adaptations relatively rapidly75. Succinctly, species die out when the rate of
environmental change exceeds the species’ capacity to adapt.
Conrad p 260 Waddington on canalisation
Gould uses the term exaptation rather than preadaptation on the grounds that exaptation
has no teleological flavour of purpose. I prefer preadaptation as being more immediately
understandable. There is no implication that the organism ‘knew’ in advance that some
adaptation would acquire further utility at a later time. Cooption is another term for
Adaptability is the capacity to thrive and survive when the environment changes
whereas evolvability is proactive ie entity has capacity to try something different in the
absence of environmental change see mataptation discussion .. Metaptation: Any
evolved trait which permits or promotes viable genetic variation is a metaptation. (King)..
That species differ in their evolutionary plasticity, in their potential for speciating and for
accommodating to diverse and shifting environments, is well known. Eg duplicate genes,
sexual reproduction Conrad too
We might also note that in a classic paper on adaptation, Lewontin (1978) points out that
adaptive evolution requires ‘quasi-independence’. By quasi-independence he means that
selection must be able to act on a trait without causing deleterious changes in other
aspects of the organism. If all the features of an organism were so closely
developmentally integrated that quasi-independent variation did not exist, then
"organisms as we know them could not exist because adaptive evolution would have been
impossible" (Lewontin 1978, p.169).
Specialised versus generalised adaptation
Before coming specifically to hominid survival, there is one more distinction to be made
to fill out this much-simplified discussion of the determinants of extinction. It is, to use a
modification of Edgar Dunn’s terms, the distinction between specialised adaptation and
generalised adaptation76. The former refers to sequences of adaptations which make
survival in a species’ existing environmental niches more likely and the latter to
adaptations which expand the environmental niche within which the lineage can survive.
Commonly, but far from always, the difference between the two can be understood as the
difference between being able to get the same food more efficiently versus getting access
to more foods in more situations and locations.
Specialised adaptation
The giraffe’s neck is an example of specialised adaptation. Others involve such things as
changes in colouration, size and shape of body parts. The process is one of fine-tuning a
species to be more energy-efficient in a more-or-less trend-free environmental niche, eg
the honeyeater’s beak is reshaped to better extract nectar from the local flowers.
Eventually, under specialised adaptation, a stage might be reached where the existing
state of adaptedness77 is simply maintained (called stabilising selection) with genetic
variation across the population being progressively reduced to a stable level, ie with
alleles of various genes being eliminated from the species’ gene pool. Such a process
may or may not leave the species experiencing it with some preadaptive traits but, either
way, that species will become vulnerable to extinction, even under slow environmental
change, simply because its former specialist adaptations are now increasingly
maladaptive (and largely irreversible); and, also, it has little genetic variability from
which adaptations appropriate to a changing niche might be generated. On the matter of
genetic variability it can be noted though that to the extent that the niche is spatially or
temporally heterogeneous, and to the extent that sub-populations within parts of the niche
Dunn’s terms (1971 chapter 2) are adaptive specialisation and adaptive generalisation.
Other terms for the same distinction are specific vs general evolution and cladogenesis
(branching evolution) vs anagenesis (upward evolution) (Rensch 1959).
77Adaptedness is an absolute measure of the capacity to survive and reproduce. Fitness is a
relative measure of survival and reproductive success. Cockburn p23 Just as animals and
plants can be bred only to a certain point.
(sub-niches) can interbreed, the species will tend to remain genetically diverse and
somewhat less specialised.
Specialised adaptation is also the process by which a common ancestral species evolves
into two or more species (called cladogenesis). This is what happens when different subpopulations of the common ancestral species become and remain separated (no
interbreeding) for long enough in differing sub-niches of the ancestral species’ niche. As
the separated sub-populations accumulate their own unique adaptations (called disruptive
selection) they first diversify into different sub-species and then different species within
the same family. While geographical separation is particularly important here, separation
could be reproductive (eg different breeding seasons) or ecological (eg living in different
strata within the tree canopy).
Generalised adaptation
The clearest examples of generalised adaptation occur when a species comes to occupy a
radically different type of niche (in contrast to specialised adaptation where a species
radiates into ‘sub-niches’). Thus, the development of the wing in the reptilian lineage
opened up the aerial niche to the avian descendants of that lineage. The development of
homeothermy (internally regulated body temperature) in birds and mammals was a
generalised adaptation which vastly extended the terrestrial habitats of these groups.
When a lineage evolves in ways that allow it to occupy a new type of niche, the products
of that process will normally be recognised, taxonomically, as being species in a new
family (group of related species) or higher taxonomic category. In contrast, specialised
adaptation by either disruptive or stabilising selection results, at most, in new species
within the same family or variants of existing species.
How does generalised adaptation happen? When, with hindsight, a line of evolutionary
change is recognised to have been one of generalised adaptation, of major change in
organism characters and environment, it can be seen that each adaptive step made
possible further adaptations which were formerly not possible or not adaptive or even
viable. It is this ‘unshackling’ effect which explains the paleontological fact that, when
they do emerge, new families and orders emerge much more rapidly than new species
emerge within families.
For example, the Cambrian ‘explosion’, some 540 mya, is the well-known phenomenon
during which, over 10-20 myrs, all extant animal phyla, and several others now extinct,
arose abruptly in the geological record. But even though generalised adaptation produces
large changes, often quite rapidly, such are still produced by a succession of genetic
changes, just as happens in specialised adaptation. Theories about new orders, phyla etc
emerging as a result of multiple small mutations occurring simultaneously (so-called
‘hopeful monsters’) have few supporters.
What helps here is to understand that, sometimes, a single viable and ‘harmonious’
mutation---a sudden alteration of heritable characteristics in a gene, a chromosome, a
genome, a plastid or a plasmon---can have dramatic effects on the developmental
trajectory (ontogeny) of a mutating organism’s offspring78. Thus, it has been learned in
recent years that around the time of the Cambrian explosion, not only were there major
environmental changes (eg in atmospheric oxygen, in the extent and composition of
coastal waters), but a new system of genetic control, one not present in unicellular
organisms, was evolving from duplicated copies of pre-existing genes. The innovation
here was homeotic or regulatory genes which control the positioning of major structures
in an animal’s body plan; which can change the relative growth rates of various organs,
limbs etc and so produce phenotypes with characters that are exaggerated or reduced
relative to the parents; and which act as on-off switches for repressing or evoking activity
in (non-regulatory) structural genes.79 For example, in a mammal, a single homeotic
mutation might produce an arm that is shorter, or longer, or broader. Regardless, it will
probably still look and work like an arm. It is now accepted by mainstream biologists
that a single homeotic mutation may have multiple effects on diverse characters,
including behaviour, development pattern and morphology, without rendering the
offspring non-viable, especially when those offspring are not being subjected to strong
selective pressures. It seems that the Cambrian explosion could have depended in part on
a flush of newly-possible homeotic mutations occurring at a time of broad-scale
environmental change.
Extending one’s niche
If a species is to successfully extend its niche, changing markedly in the process, there
would seem to be at least three preconditions to be met. One is that the new niche needs
to be geographically accessible from the old. For example, an aquatic species adapted to
a deep-ocean niche could not have served as a ‘phylogenetic bridge’ to amphibian and
terrestrial existence; it would have to be a species at home in the shallows. Second, the
colonising species would need to have some minimal set of selectively neutral
preadaptations80. For example, an aquatic animal species colonising the land would need
to be pre-equipped with a means of locomotion there such as wriggling or walking on its
A third pre-condition for achieving successful occupation of a new niche is what might
be called ecological access. That is, within geographical range there must be an
Plasmon is the aggregate of cytoplasmic or extranuclear genetic material in an
organism. Plastid a specialized component organelle in a photosynthetic plant cell that contains
pigment, ribosomes, and DNA, and serves specific physiological purposes such as food synthesis and
(Carroll 2000) Structural genes are genes that code for polypeptides or other structural
units of a cell. Homeosis means a shift in structural development.
80 ‘Selectively neutral’ means that organisms with these preadaptations were as
reproductively successful as those without them.
ecological web sufficiently developed to contain niches which the colonising species is
somewhat equipped to fill but which are not already occupied by other well-adapted
species. For example, at intervals during the evolution of multi-cellular life there have
been mass extinctions of species caused by cosmic and planetary events such as large
scale volcanism or impacts by asteroids, comets etc. While new, different ecosystems are
quickly re-established after such catastrophic events, there are inevitably many empty
niches for some time. Thus, on the (debateable) assumption that dinosaurs were coldblooded and that this partly explains their demise during a long winter triggered by a
comet strike some 65 million years ago, a niche was created for mammals, these having
some pre-adapted capacity for regulating body temperature, to emerge as the dominant
form of animal life.
While not preconditions, there are several other situations that appear to be conducive to
the onset of generalised adaptation. One of these, sometimes called the law of the
unspecialised, suggests that new families and orders tend to emerge out of less
specialised subgroups within a species or out of the less specialised species in a family of
species. One reason for this might be that in a specialised species all its tissues have
already acquired highly specific functional tasks whereas in unspecialised species there
may well be tissues that have not yet been co-opted for specialised tasks and which may
therefore be available for reshaping into generalised adaptations81. A related observation
here is that generalised adaptation tends to occur in (geographical) transition zones
between major ecological provinces, perhaps because the ecotypes (variants within a
species) located there are already preadapted to some extent and because the environment
in the transition zone, being the ‘edge’ of the niche, is more variable than in the ‘core’
part of the niche. Because they have to cope with multiple environments, species in
transition zones are under less selection pressure to specialise. Indeed, such species may
well get selected for phenotypic plasticity, the capacity to develop or behave differently
depending on the reigning environment.
It does seem that, when conditions are right, new families and orders do enter the fossil
record very quickly in terms of geological time and seldom through a succession of many
small genetic changes (gradualism) within a given environment such as envisaged under
specialised adaptation. This is the process that Gould and Eldredge termed punctuated
equilibrium; perhaps periodic acceleration (in the rate of phylogenesis) would be a
more informative name.82 What the fossil record suggests is that, following the
occupation of a previously unexploited niche or a newly-created niche, in a situation
where selective pressures are low, it is common for the invading species to rapidly split
Sometimes, because genes can have multiple effects, non-functional tissues can arise as
by-products of selection for some functional character. Unspecialised tissues can be formed
as allometric ‘byproducts’ and then be later coopted for new functions ..specialisation
removes surplus unspecialised tisues which otherwise might have been available for
moulding into generalised adaptations (wait till have read Rensch 1959).
82 Gould and Eldredge?? One argument against gradualism is that forms with
characteristics intermediate between orders or even families are essentially unknown.
into a diversity of ‘fit enough’ species, most of which then begin their own journeys
toward specialised adaptation.
Constraints and trajectories in phylogenesis
To what extent are the evolutionary possibilities open to a species at any time channelled
in a particular direction or moulded by internal constraints on what is physically,
developmentally (eg bodyplan constraints) or biochemically possible or by external
environmental parameters such as atmospheric-oxygen levels or the presence of other
species? From knowing what has gone before, ie what past adaptations have produced,
are there things that can be said about what tends to happen or about what cannot
happen? As an illustration of the latter, we might note that the development of the wing
deprived birds of potential hands that could be used to manipulate the environment and,
in the interests of flight, limited potential size---including a brain of size sufficient for the
development of intelligence.83 As a trade-off for these ‘lockouts,’ birds acquired high
mobility and, thereby, access to new food sources.
As a sample of what tends to happen, consider one of paleontology’s basic
generalisations, namely, that trends are common, ie morphological etc changes in a
particular direction tend to continue once initiated, as with the giraffe’s neck. A more
important example, one with many flow-on effects, is the tendency of body size to
increase in many lines of descent. Historically, there has been much debate as to whether
such trajectories can be plausibly explained by natural selection alone or whether there is
a need to postulate additional orthogenetic mechanisms, ones which imply goal-directed
evolution.84. Today, most opinion would be that a sufficient explanation for most trends
is that internal and external constraints on what changes will be viable have left just a few
feasible directions of change available for natural selection to find. To quote Stephen
"…the constraints of inherited form and developmental
pathways may so channel any change, even though selection
induces motion down permitted paths, the channel itself
represents the primary determinant of evolutionary
Notwithstanding, once a favourable ‘biological technology’ has been ‘invented’ (no
purposiveness intended), it might be expected to persist (with or without some trending)
in the lineage for as long as no better way of carrying out that adaptation’s function
emerges.86 Thus, chromosomes, structures which transmit synergistic genes in tandem,
have persisted since their emergence because they help ensure that all new cells contain
(Dunn p 57).
??explain orthogenesis?
85 Gould (1982, 383
86 REnsch p71
all genes. The cell itself is a similarly favourable and persistent ‘invention; it is a
modular ‘building block’ which has the property of selectively limiting the influence of
its chemical environment on its contents. As a third important example, the emergence of
a nervous system conferred an enhanced ability to react appropriately to external stimuli,
eg by prompting muscles to contract for fleeing when danger appears. In general, organs
and organ systems such as the brain, blood vessels, nephridia (insect ’kidneys’), labyrinth
(internal ear) etc have remained largely unchanged since their beginnings.
Some rules of phylogenetic development
As already noted, sequences of adaptive changes can cumulate directionally (directional
selection), either in response to a changing or changed environment or via a process of
coevolution between lineage and environment. In practice, knowledge of an animal’s
mode of life and habitat often allow a degree of prediction as to the direction of its
functional-anatomical evolution. Rensch87 has collated some of these insights as ‘rules of
phylogenetic development’. For example:
Large terrestrial vertebrates must develop heavy columnar legs with disproportionately
large bones because, as body size increases, body weight increases much faster than the
strength of the animal’s leg bones, eg elephants, extinct orders of large birds and giant
Speed through air and water is increased by streamlining the body.
Sessile animals can only evolve in water, an environment where they can rely on eddying
to bring them food.
There are only a limited number of models for evolving legs for jumping or for digging.
Heterotrophs (mainly animals) could not evolve before the evolution of autotrophs
(mainly plants) to feed on.
Autotrophic organisms require a large surface area because their uptake of nutrients and
energy is through those surfaces.
Evolution of larger bodies in multi-celled animals requires a transport system for food
and oxygen (blood vessels, tracheae). Without such systems, tissues must be close
enough to the sites where food and oxygen molecules enter to allow for the slow rate at
which these diffuse through tissue. Flatworms, for example, have no circulatory or
respiratory system but succeed because of their flat bodies and richly branched intestines.
Generalised adaptation in multi-celled animals results in major reorganisation and
specialisation of internal organs and their increasingly centralised control from the brain.
REnsch p73
Some of these rules illuminate the well-recognised phenomenon of convergence in which
different species follow parallel evolutionary paths, ie the same sorts of adaptations
appear quite independently in diverse species that have become adapted to a similar
habitat or way of life, eg the similar body shapes of the North American grey wolf, a
placental mammal, and the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacine), a marsupial mammal.
The importance of allometry and heterochrony for evolutionary trajectories
Allometry is the term recognising that, in most animals, different body parts grow at
consistently different rates as the size of that organism increases. Empirically, the results
of such differential growth rates can normally be expressed as power law relationships of
the form
log X = a log Y
where X and Y are the sizes of any two allometrically-related body parts.
While the relative growth rates of organs and parts of organs remain constant during
much of an individual organism’s development, there can be periods when an organ or
structure grows faster than the body as a whole (positive allometry) or more slowly
(negative allometry). For example, the human head exhibits positive allometry till birth
and negative allometry thereafter.
Such relative growth rates and the length of time for which they operate during the
organism’s normal development sequence are under regulatory-gene and hormonal
control and open to adaptive selection. Within limits, allometric relationships are as
subject to selection as static morphology itself (Gould 1966). In principle then, in a welladapted organism each body part grows to a size where it can meet the ‘peak
performance’ needs of other body parts, and have its own needs met, in a balanced way,
ie without surplus or insufficient capacity.
The reality is more complicated. The functions of regulatory genes appear to be
organised hierarchically with, in many cases, a single regulatory gene controlling the
development of not one but a whole group (module), or even whole groups, of
allometrically linked body parts/traits. This means that one or a few mutations in a
lineage’s regulatory genes can dramatically change the timing and duration of
developmental events during morphogenesis---a change called heterochrony---and hence
change the allometric relations (proportions) between the body parts of the phenotype.
Selection for neotenous development in early hominids, as described above (p 19),
provides a clear example.
In terms of defining an organism’s further evolutionary possibilities, modularity would
appear to mean that most changes in a body process only have to be compatible with
processes in the same regulatory module, not other modules.
Selection for increasing body size
In most mammalian lines of descent there have been, at times, increases in body size, eg
giant types evolving from smaller ancestors. Why? In many environments, there are a
number of advantages, up to a point, in being larger88. Thus the last glacial age saw an
increase in types of large homeotherms such as mammoths, giant elk, red deer, giant
wombats, all benefiting from needing relatively less food to maintain body temperature
than their smaller ancestors.89
Because of genetically embedded allometric correlations, selection for larger body size
commonly brings with it the ‘overdevelopment’ or ‘underdevelopment’ of various body
parts, compared with smaller ancestors. Some of these, like proportionately stouter legs
for enlarged vertebrates, are necessary in an absolute sense. Some may prove
maladaptive, others adaptive. For example, positive allometric growth of the permanent
teeth in many lines leads to excessively (fatally?) large canines and incisors, eg the sabretoothed tiger. Conversely, under the negative allometric growth typical of the smaller
organs (heart, liver etc), there is more space available in the body cavity of larger types
for intestines and a developing foetus. While the brain is relatively smaller in large types
the ‘newer’ forebrain is relatively larger, the individual neurons are absolutely larger and
have more dendrites (extensions) per neuron, implying a brain with more possibilities for
associating images and perceptions with each other.
It might be noted here that the allometrically guided evolution of the vertebrate brain
illustrates the idea that excess ‘overdeveloped’ tissue can, in time, be employed for new
functions or even to form new organs. Thus, several functions located in the midbrain
shifted to the forebrain once its relative size increased by positive allometry during the
amphibian-reptile stage of vertebrate evolution. That same shift may have initiated the
eventual development of the cerebral cortex possessed eventually by all higher
vertebrates. Thus, in hominids, as noted earlier, new cortical tissue became available for
allocation to new or expanded functions such as making plans, making associations
between ideas and between percepts and, eventually, managing the motor functions of
Selection for increasing body size then is likely to bring, along with major changes in
body proportions, both adaptive benefits and adaptive costs and size will only continue to
increase for as long as the costs of the ‘allometric by-products’ of increasing size remain
REnsch pp211-218 [[Michael J. Reiss, The Allometry of Growth and Reproduction
(1989), a study of how behavioral, ecological, and evolutionary questions concerning
various organisms can be addressed by a comparative analysis of their size and body
Also, as homeothermy allowed migration to colder environments, individual energy needs
may have been reduced somewhat by a parallel reduction in the burden of tropical parasites.
tolerable. Or, and this is genetically difficult, until the allometric links between
favourable and unfavourable traits are broken. And, to the extent that there is already
pre-adaptive variation within a population in the genetically embedded allometric and
heterochronic relations governing organ development, selection for increasing body size
stands to bring not one but a range of major changes in body proportions. These
variations could, in turn, trigger rapid speciation, especially if the accessible and actual
environment were itself spatially variable.
To round things out here, recall, from earlier discussion of Baldwinian selection, that
accumulated genetic modifications which, before environmental change, were selectively
neutral, and perhaps ‘invisible,’ might, under environmental change, trigger a plastic
response in the phenotype. That is, genetic change, phenotypic change and
environmental change may all be contributing to any change in body proportions.
Notwithstanding some discussion in the literature,90 what is not clear is the source of the
genetic plasticity which allows a trait such as body size to keep increasing over, perhaps,
hundreds of generations. Part of the answer might lie in selection for alleles of the
regulatory gene or genes which control the timing between switching on and switching
off the secretion of growth hormone. Again, the pituitary gland’s capacity for secreting
growth hormone may itself be allometrically dependent on the organism’s past size
increases.91 Or, perhaps it is nutritional levels rather than genes that limit increases in
body size---size improves nutrition, improved nutrition increases size.
The hominid experience
While the story will continue to be refined, or even recast, the main stages in hominid
evolution---from (say) the hominid-chimpanzee divergence until modern humans
precariously survived the last ice age---are clear enough. In those six million or so years,
the lineage radiated into a small number of species several times (punctuated
equilibrium?); just like many other vertebrate lineages While several coexisted at times,
all but one of these species have now died out. But just why the Homo sapiens lineage
survived and others did not is a topic we have not explored.
Not only did the human lineage survive massive global-scale climatic and ecological
changes during its evolution but, by the beginning of the Holocene epoch (10-11 ka),
which is where this chapter ends, populations of modern humans had migrated to and
were established in all lands except Antarctica and some south Pacific islands. The
world’s human population at that time could have been five million,92 all organised into
example, DG King at (accessed
May 3 2006) Heyland et al e-library
91 Legait et al 1976
McNeill 2000 says 5mn people in 8000BC
hunter-gatherer bands of up to 150 people, people who, developmentally,
morphologically and behaviourally were markedly different from the ancestral great apes
who first adapted to a shrinking of their tree-top habitat by obtaining an increasing part of
their food on the ground and, eventually, becoming ground–dwellers.
Of three previously noted requirements for a lineage to successfully occupy a new niche,
geographical access to savanna habitats came ineluctably as grasslands replaced drying
forests in the east Africa of the late Pliocene. Understanding of how hominids had
ecological access to an unoccupied or uncompetitively occupied niche is more
speculative. Still, apparently there was room for a forager-scavenger-food-sharing
species capable of coordinated group behaviour.
This leads to the third requirement for successful niche extension, namely that the
immigrant species be ‘sufficiently’ pre-adapted to the new conditions and not be too
burdened with specialised adaptations carried over from their previous niche. For
example, over millions of years of arboreal life, the primitive grasping hand continued to
function without any specialised adaptation (such as becoming claw-like), maintaining its
versatile mobility and its direct nerve-connections to the forebrain. Indeed, it is hard to
think of any adaptations to tree-life which would subsequently prove patently
maladaptive once the lineage moved to the ground. In this sense proto-humans were
remarkably unspecialised.
Indeed, one can readily list a number of pre-adaptations (some predating arboreal life)
which, immediately or with further selection, appear to have improved survival prospects
for australopithecines in a drying, cooling world. For example:
Capacity to regulate body temperature
Group living ( important for cooperative scavenging and gathering, food sharing,
Forward-facing eyes for stereoscopic vision
Good hand-eye co-ordination
Omnivore dentition and digestive tract
Feet which would adapt easily to walking and running
Erect posture of the trunk (an essential prerequisite for erect walking)
Once on the ground, adaptation to a savanna niche could begin, starting with selection for
increasingly efficient bipedal locomotion and a larger body size than would have been
practical for life in the treetops. And as body size increased (a distinct advantage in that
new habitat), so did brain size, the forebrain in particular. The long march from a
chimpanzee-sized brain to a modern human brain had begun. Indeed, the paramount
feature of hominid evolution over the last two million years has been the growth and
reorganisation (eg lateralisation) of the brain, along with closely associated changes in
morphological traits (eg vocal apparatus), in behavioural traits (eg cultural practices) and
in the timing of life-cycle events (eg neotenous development). Over the same period a
large number of proto-human traits have persisted with relatively little change.
Improving adaptedness
The adaptability of an evolving lineage is its proficiency in generating adaptations, via
natural selection, that, within its niche, improve adaptedness (fitness, reliability), ie
improve survival and reproduction prospects. Like other higher animals (less so for
plants and simple animals), the hominid lineage has relied on ongoing evolution within a
particular family of adaptations, namely phenotypic plasticity, to maintain and improve
adaptedness in what has proved to be a variable environment. Recall that an individual
organism’s phenotypic plasticity is its capacity to continue surviving and developing in a
changing environment, by changing physiologically, morphologically and behaviourally.
Anurag Agrawal, discussing the ‘adaptive plasticity hypothesis’ says that ‘the modern
view of plasticity can be generalised to the statement that phenotypic plasticity evolves to
maximise fitness in variable environments.’ 93
Focusing here on behavioural plasticity, the basic requirement for achieving flexible
behaviour---meaning context-sensitive observable activity, particularly in terms of
mobility and discrimination---is a developed centralised nervous system linked, on one
hand, to organs for perceiving the environment and, on the other, to a skeleton and
muscles capable of versatile movement. But, to move beyond the reflexive and
instinctual, achieving flexibility in observable activity eventually requires a brain that is
also capable of learning and memorising. A lineage with limited behavioural plasticity
will necessarily be more reliant on physiological and morphological responses to achieve
adaptedness. For example, prokaryotes synthesise their own metabolites to a degree
multi-celled animals cannot match; plants have a putative ‘strategy’ of acquiring
resources by extending into the environment.
As noted severally above, a variety of processes have been implicated in explaining the
growth and reorganisation of the hominid brain over the Pleistocene epoch: the allometric
relationship between brain (parts) and body size; selection for neotenous development;
selection for tighter neural control of the hand following the transition to bipedalism; the
management of mimesis and, eventually, prosody and speech; the impact of shifting
between niches; and variability/change in both the abiotic and biotic (including sociocultural) selecting environments.
How have these processes expanded phenotypic plasticity, the individual’s ability to
respond appropriately to changing circumstances? In particular, how has an increasing
Agrawal, Anurag, Phentypic plasticity in the interactions and evolution of species Science
294 2001 321-26
emphasis on brain-managed behaviour led to increasingly plastic behaviour? At one
level, increasingly plastic behaviour is nothing more than a many-to-many elaboration of
the one-to-one stimulus-response mechanism recognised in the simplest plants and
animals (eg the oyster closing when touched). In brief, the plastic organism, compared
with the implastic organism, differentiates incoming stimuli more finely, has more motor
options available and uses a more elaborate comparative procedure to select a motor
response to a received stimulus.
So, behavioural plasticity increased over the Pleistocene as:
Streams of sensory inputs from the external and internal environments were being
represented in a centralised brain in ever more categorical detail and being coordinated
more closely.
The range of motor actions (behavioural outputs) available to the organism increased as
the brain acquired finer control over evolving sets of muscles and their movements.
The brain acquired an increased capacity for memorising experiences and associating
them (equals learning); and using these capacities for generating and modelling the
consequences of alternative motor actions in response to current sensory inputs. In novel
situations the brain’s capacity for generating images of alternative motor actions depends
on its capacity for exploratory mental behaviour which in turn is linked to earlier
selection for delayed development and, with it, extended childhood.
The brain acquired a (pre-conscious) decision-making or choice-making capacity for
searching candidate motor responses until it identified, and then implemented, one with
consequences which were ‘good enough’ in terms of the emotional associations attached
to those consequences.
The range of traditional and routine behaviours available to the individual accumulated
reliably from generation to generation.
Evolutionary ecology of hunter-gatherers
For most of the Pleistocene, hominids were hunter-gatherers organised into nomadic
bands that roved between relatively more productive (in food terms) patches distributed
across a loosely defined territory. Their basic means of acquiring food (there being no
imports or exports) was to harvest available plant and animal biomass, while paying a
degree of attention to securing the ongoing reproduction of that biomass, eg taboos on
certain food sources at times..
In good times (plentiful food) band numbers may have grown and, in bad times (high
population relative to the territory’s immediate carrying capacity), contracted as a result
of increased mortality and emigration by some of the band (called fission) into new
territory. On coarser spatial and temporal scales, a further factor driving hominid spread
during the Pleistocene was ‘biome shift’, this being the ways in which various biomes
(forests, deserts, coasts etc) shifted backwards and forwards across Eurasia as glaciers
and sea levels responded to warming and cooling periods within and between the epoch’s
several dozen ice ages. Like other animal groups, hominids would have moved with or
tracked the expansions and contractions of biomes to which they were adapted. In some
situations biomes may have contracted rather than shifted, forcing groups into
competition for declining resources and, perhaps, for we do not know, into violent
In these ways, we can imagine erectines and, possibly, australopithecines, colonising
much of Eurasia by a process of slow frontier expansion. That is, while the global
hominid population probably zig-zagged slowly upwards, through glacial and interglacial periods, for much of the Pleistocene (until the post-Toba crash), the process was
more one of growth by extensification (more occupied hectares), not intensification
(more people per occupied hectare).
Depending on the type of biome being exploited, omnivorous hominids would have been
in competition with carnivores for herbivore prey and with herbivores for plant foods;
and would be prey themselves sometimes. But, having control over no energy sources
beyond their own somatic energy (at least till fire was mastered), and despite a growing
phenotypic plasticity, hominids are unlikely to have extinguished other species, except
very locally perhaps. There may even have been a degree of coevolution with prey
species and with other predator species (leading in places to hominids focusing on some
subset of the available prey species).94
What seems likely is that in most seasons, in most biomes, the hunter-gatherer population
would have harvested only a small proportion of the available biomass (much less than
one per cent) and, even in harsh seasons, it is unlikely that resources would have been
depleted to the point of being thereafter unusable.95 The persistence (many would call it
sustainability) through geologic time of the hunter-gatherer mode of livelihood (or, in
economic language, system of production) and its extension into the most demanding of
terrestrial habitats are indications of the success, under a diversity of changing and
changed conditions, of the core hominid evolutionary trajectory, namely the cumulative
amplification of the lineage’s brain-based behavioural plasticity.
Without hindsight, that conclusion would not be obvious. Maintaining and, over
evolutionary time, growing a centralised, albeit functionally differentiated, nervous
system requires the unceasing delivery of large quantities of metabolic energy. Even
allowing for the decreasing specific metabolic rate which accompanies increasing body
Brantingham 1998
Haberl H, 2002,. R E SEARCH AND ANALYS I S Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and Yale University, The Energetic Metabolism of Societies Part II:
Empirical Examples
size, this is a strategy premised on being able to capture large quantities of energy and
using much of that yield to maintain the very organ which allows larger quantities of
energy to be captured in the first place. Expressed in that way, the ‘big brain strategy’ is
a continuation of the homeotherm strategy; compared with cold-blooded animals, warmblooded animals need to capture large quantities of energy to maintain their capacity to
be more independent of external temperatures.
Considering the lineage as a whole, as a metaphorical ‘super-organism’ perhaps,
hominids were processing and extracting more and more energy from their environment
as the Pleistocene progressed (the ‘super-organism’ was growing). More correctly, this is
a general trend which has to be seen against a background of major shifts in the type and
level of productivity of the larger environment.
Within this trend, two component trends can be distinguished; one in the extensification
of energy extraction and one in the intensification of energy extraction. The process of
population growth by extensive spread was equally a process by which the hominid
lineage, as a whole, was extracting more energy from the environment---not by capturing
more joules per ha, but by capturing much the same joules per ha from many more
As regards the intensification trend, what is being suggested is that hunter-gatherer
societies were also netting increasing amounts of energy per ha (per unit bodyweight?)
from their territories as the Pleistocene progressed. That is, the difference between
energy captured and energy expended to capture it was increasing. To the extent that
energy captured per unit of energy expended was also increasing, hunter-gatherers were
also capturing energy more efficiently. And, perhaps, also more reliably, meaning less
variability over time in the net amount of energy captured---a most important determinant
of group survival, sometimes interpreted, misleadingly, as greater independence from the
Lumping these variations on the intensification theme together, what might have made
such intensification possible? An answer has already been suggested, namely the
cumulative amplification and application of the lineage’s brain-based behavioural
plasticity, in combination with the advent of a number of physical and developmental
adaptations. Apart from changes in the brain itself, these latter include adaptations in
body size, in vocal apparatus, in the hands, in the pelvis and, of course, in the timing of
Cultural lift-off
One way of thinking generically about the contributions to hominid adaptedness of the
increasingly plastic brain is to see it as having generated a succession of technologies or
behavioural recipes---stepwise procedures for completing tasks, for realising imagined
goal states. And, to the extent that they persist, that they survive in the selecting
environment, all such technologies, indirectly but ultimately, raise, at least in relative
terms, the (net) mean quantity of energy captured by the group and/or reduce variability
in the (net) quantity of energy captured over time. The Darwinian assumption being made
here about the selecting environment is that newly-generated technologies or new
variants of existing technologies will not be adopted and persist unless they ‘save’ or
‘earn’ more disposable energy than existing technologies. The ability to acquire
disposable energy is central to adaptedness. Nonetheless, the forces of habit and tradition
or side effects on the availability of non-energy resources or high transition costs (the
effort required to switch from an old to a new technology), could all militate against the
adoption of a new technology on the basis of its energy gains alone.
But what were these technologies? While it could be seen as stretching the concept of
technologies too far, it can be suggested that technologies group readily into:
Material technologies which involve making things from source materials, including
prostheses such as tools and weapons, cooked food, clothes, shelters
Social technologies which involve habitual, cooperative, coordinated action between
people , eg food sharing, hunting and gathering in groups, defending the group, attacking
other groups, rituals, taboos, division of labour, the invention of leadership.
Communicative technologies which involve the transfer of information and knowledge
between people using, eg, mimesis, demonstration, stories, displaying emotions, spoken
Cognitive technologies which use the resources of sensory inputs (both internal and
external), memories and learned relationships to model, in words and images, the
consequences of alternative behaviours and events. Applications include making
decisions, classifying entities, solving what-to-do problems.
A group’s culture is largely defined by the extent to which the habitual application of
particular technologies within these categories is common to, or, at least, understood by
the group’s members. And, in this sense, Pleistocene cultures evolved as these various
shared behaviours became better adapted to existing circumstances or became modified
to suit changing circumstances. Most of these evolving technologies can be seen to have
had roots in pre-Pleistocene minds and social relationships (the first hominids were
already social animals with sizeable brains) and appear to have changed only slowly
thereafter and in readily understandable ways, eg achieving more cutting edge per stone
Then, some 40 kya, came the Upper Paleolithic revolution in which developments in
material, social, communicative and cognitive technologies, both singly and in concert,
began accelerating the rate of cultural change; and, overall, a group’s capacity to reliably
capture energy from it’s territory. Was this largely a matter of separate technologies
having accumulated to a point, a critical mass, where synergistic possibilities between
them began to appear? Were pre-existing simpler technologies now being brought
together to create, incrementally, more complex new technologies eg combining sharper
flakes and straighter shafts to produce a new generation of spears? Perhaps, but it seems
more likely that the development of extended spoken language, the master technology,
massively augmented the lineage’s capacity to create, transfer, bequeath, accumulate and
integrate the sweep of material, social, communicative and cognitive technologies.
And, we might note, assuming that fire had been mastered well before the Upper
Paleolithic revolution, this cultural transformation was achieved without a bonanza of
technologies for accessing radically new energy sources (eg wind) or for accessing prior
energy sources (eg photosynthates) in fundamentally different ways.
The essence of the scenario being presented here is that during the Pleistocene,
particularly towards the end, the human lineage was unconsciously building up its
repertoires of two sorts of intellectual capital. One was working knowledge of material,
social, communicative and cognitive technologies which, directly or indirectly, gave
groups an enhanced capacity to reliably capture biomass energy from an area. The other
was knowledge (information, understanding, a model…) of how the world works,
meaning its constituent cause-effect relationships, both hypothetical and observed. It is
not too bold to suggest that without verbal language there would have been little
accumulation of intellectual capital; just as there was little opportunity for mobile nomads
to accumulate material capital beyond portable possessions.
Cultural evolution and population trends
As noted above, group sizes would have been likely to have expanded in good times and
contracted in harsh times. Increasing levels of technological competence (adaptedness)
might have slowed any fall in group numbers in harsh times and, in better times, at least
till numbers grew to match the territory’s rising carrying capacity, the dividend from
better technologies might have been more ‘leisure’ or ‘play’ time for practising and
further improving all types of technologies. And there could have been more time for
devising behaviours for dealing with emerging what-to-do situations; and more time for
transmitting traditional behaviours through rituals, mimesis etc.
But when it comes to judging the significance of cultural evolution in raising average
population density and lowering its variability there are too many factors involved to
allow generalisations. For example, how often did improved technologies lead to overharvesting? How draining was the overhead cost in energy terms of maintaining an everlarger suite of material, social, communicative and cognitive technologies? How often
did entrenched technologies become maladaptive under changing conditions?
A reasonable guess for the Upper Paleolithic, and it is nothing more, is that advancing
technologies tended to facilitate small increases in average population density, moderate
reductions in population variability and somewhat larger improvements in groups’
capacities to survive major changes in environmental conditions, the sudden bitterness of
the last glacial maximum for example It would not be until the invention of
fundamentally different energy-acquisition technologies (farming and herding), well after
the end of the last ice age, that population densities would rise markedly.
Is this story remarkable?
We have now traversed the pre-history of the hominid lineage from well before the
Pleistocene epoch to its end. Our lineage entered the Pleistocene as primates and
mammals and left the same way. Indeed we are still mammals and primates and will,
almost certainly, long remain so (widespread species undergo little evolutionary
change96). We might ask then, is the human story remarkable?
An entity (or a process) is remarkable to the extent that it is observably different from
other entities in the same family, the word ‘family’ here meaning a set of entities which
have some defining characteristics in common, eg primates have good eyes and flexible
hands and feet97. Humans have all the characteristics of mammals but they are
remarkable mammals in terms of their easy bipedalism, their slow maturation and the
large highly-organised brains which make their material, social, communicative and
cognitive technologies possible. Reflecting their own adaptive paths, other mammals are
remarkable too of course; for strength, speed, sensory acuity etc.
We might also ask whether the hominid lineage has been remarkably lucky, because it
probably has! ‘Lucky’ here means lucky to have survived; and not too cruelly. Most
obviously, if the Toba eruption, 71 kya, had been a little bigger, or had lasted a little
longer or had been followed up with some more large eruptions---and any of these
scenarios would have been unsurprising---the lineage may well have not survived.
In terms of the large dissipative systems within which the hominid lineage (itself a
dissipative system, albeit dispersed in space and time) is embedded, the Pleistocene was,
luckily, more-or-less stable. The Earth suffered no impacts from large meteors/comets
and no extended bursts of high-energy radiation. Insolation levels, the composition of the
atmosphere and the positions and tectonics of the continents were all effectively stable, ie
were changing slowly, in human terms. After all, the Pleistocene is a very short period
relative to the lifetimes of these large systems. It was mainly shifts in climate, over
decades and centuries, and associated changes in shorelines, ice cover and biomes that
provided the challenges to which the hominid lineage had to adapt or die out. Behaviours
(technologies) which acquire food successfully in one environment need not necessarily
be successful in others.
[Mayr 2001 p 254].)]]]
Lakoff in Metaphors we live by suggests that the starting point for identifying a family of
entities is a prototype entity with a a set of characteristics. The extent to which other
entities deviate in their characteristics from the prototype determines whether they will be
subjectively judged as being within the same family.
Metaphorically, phylogenesis via natural selection is a short-sighted process which,
almost always, takes species down adaptive paths that turn out to be dead ends, ie most
species that ever were are now extinct. The hominid lineage however experienced a
sequence of adaptations which, despite being routinely short-sighted, did not become
maladaptations when the selecting environment changed and indeed turned out to be
useful preadaptations for new environments. A good example is the adaptations to
arboreal life which turned out to be useful preadaptations for life on the savannas. That’s
Can this line of argument be taken further? Did hominids who were evolving on the
cooling, drying savannas of the early Pleistocene acquire adaptations which preadapted
them and did not maladapt them for the ice ages to come? One positive example is that
the mobility acquired on the savannas allowed later Eurasians to survive the harshest of
glacial times by intercepting and butchering animals from migrating herds during the
short spring-summer and cold-storing them for the following winter.
And next, as modern humans came through the last glacial maximum, did they turn out to
be preadapted, not maladapted, to the warmer, less variable conditions of the Holocene
epoch? A partial answer here is that Pleistocene hominids were never selected to any
extent for physiological and morphological characters which might plausibly be viewed
as specialised adaptations to ice age conditions, eg hairiness. In this sense they were
again lucky because these are the sorts of adaptations which, when conditions change,
tend to become maladaptations. Rather, hominids were largely being (naturally) selected
for brains that showed an appetency and an increasing capacity, in terms of size and
organisation, to create material, social, communicative and cognitive technologies. And,
as these technologies were evolving and co-evolving, hominid culture was selectively
accumulating, a capital stock of shared ideas, percepts, potential behaviours, experiences
etc. was building up from generation to generation. A pool of acquired behaviours could
accumulate despite the deaths of those acquiring them.
This remarkable process, this cultural evolution, was and is strongly analogous to natural
(biological) selection and that includes being shaped by analogues of the necessary and
sufficient conditions under which natural selection occurs, namely, phenotypic variations
which (a) are directly related to variations in reproductive success and which (b) are
more-or-less heritable.
Corresponding to the triplet of phenotype-genotype variation, fitness differences and
parent-offspring transmission under natural selection, the necessary and sufficient
conditions supporting cultural evolution in hunter-gatherer times were:
Generation of variation---spontaneous exploratory behaviour in what-to-do situations and
in atypical situations where existing technology recipes require some adjustment/
modification before they can be successfully applied
Selection for fitness---a tendency for such technological innovations to be selected to
replace or be added to previous technologies in situations where trials confirm they
improve the group’s ability to capture energy, either directly or ( like food-sharing) quite
indirectly. We might note though that for existing technologies to be replaced, the gains
would need to outweigh the ‘transition costs’ of overturning existing traditions and habits
in societies which experience would have taught to be highly conservative.
Perpetuation through ‘inheritance’---reliable transmission between individuals and
retention within the group memory (social learning) of recipes for successful
technological innovations. Initially, transmission was through non-verbal mimesis and,
late in the Pleistocene, through verbal instructions on how to implement technology
Technologies are like genes in several ways. Indeed, they are prime examples of the
‘imitable behaviours’ which Richard Dawkins’ called ‘memes’ and Edward Wilson
called ‘cultural genes’ or ‘culturgens’98. They can appear spontaneously like mutations,
they are available for use as needed and they can be recombined to create new
While the rate of biological evolution slowed after the human brain reached its present
size, the rate of cultural evolution, and hence of technology accumulation or culturalcapital accumulation, began to speed up at that time and has continued to speed up until
the present day. This ‘swamping’ of biological change by cultural change in human
populations is (like biogenesis, sex, multi-cellularity, sociality…) one of the truly
remarkable emergent developments in the evolution of life on Earth. And, at least till the
Neolithic revolution (10 kya), when new energy-capturing technologies emerged, it was
developments in one technology, language, particularly vocabulary size, which uniquely
allowed, no, hastened, the ongoing upgrading of cultural evolution’s processes for
generating, selecting and retaining new technologies.
[[[[As the technology mix being used ebbed and flowed, the emergent properties of the
society would have responded---such things as material-energy flows, social character,
class structure, the resource base, demographic structure etc. ]]]]]
Bye-bye Pleistocene, hullo Holocene
So, there we have it. About 15 kya the end of the ice age was signalled by rising
temperatures, rising seas, melting glaciers, declining populations of large food animals,
and spreading forests (in Europe) and deserts (in north America). The species of present
interest, Homo sapiens, was to be found over most of Eurasia and Australia and poised to
spread through the Americas and the Pacific. Humans would appear to have been
remarkably well placed to meet the challenges and opportunities posed by niche loss and
Dawkins Wilson
niche gain at this time. They had adapted to but escaped capture by low-temperature
environments. Their implicit (probably non-conscious) strategy for achieving this had
been to develop an ‘extended phenotype,’ a variety of ‘prosthetic’ technologies--material, social, communicative and cognitive---for amplifying individual and group
capabilities in diverse ways which, paramountly, were not genetically fixed like instincts
but available for use as situations demanded, eg shedding clothes in warm weather.
For human populations everywhere, this was the strategy they would take forward into
the Holocene epoch, accumulating further technologies suited to and possible within the
particular biomes they occupied; creating a hunting rather than a fishing culture for
example. Trade and other contacts (eg ceremonial) between groups would continue to
ensure a degree of technology transfer between populations and sufficient genetic mixing
to preclude further speciation.
With hindsight, many of the technologies coming out of the Pleistocene were precursors
to and components of more developed Holocene technologies. For example, fire
management comes, and has to come, before metal smelting; the social technology of
chiefdoms is a first step towards the role specialisation and stratified societies of the
Mesopotamian civilisations; in cognitive technology, magical thinking sets the stage for
scientific thinking; in communicative technology, pictorial images lead to writing.
And, at some stage, as the range of extant technologies increased, ‘compound’
technologies involving the combining of existing technologies began to be invented with
increasing frequency. Why? Because the (theoretical) possibilities for new compound
technologies increase in proportion to the square of the number of existing technologies.
For several reasons however, the process of technology invention did not therefore
‘explode’. One is that most combinations of existing technologies are either infeasible or
not useful. Another is that in hunter-gatherer and early Holocene village societies there
may not have been enough discretionary time or enough surplus food energy to support
the exploratory behaviour that can generate new combinatorial technologies.
Nevertheless, a process of fitful compound growth in the available suite of technologies
was now under way and has continued till the present day. Remembering our broad
conceptualisation of technology, cultural evolution can be usefully viewed as a process of
inventing and applying new technologies. Cultural evolution was and is a response
which human societies make to changed conditions, to changes in their environment. But
it is not a necessary or universal response---‘do nothing’ is also a possible response.
Nor is there any guarantee that the invention and application of new technologies will
improve the species’ adaptedness. Certainly it is a strategy which created a new mode of
production, a new social and economic system under the enormous shift from Pleistocene
to Holocene conditions. And, as measured by the subsequent increase in human
population numbers, cultural evolution did not fail this test. Perhaps cultural evolution is
a strategy which would have failed under other environmental lurches but that is
Whether or not cultural evolution improved quality of life for most people in a Holocene
environment is, as we shall see, more debateable. But the even more important question
which has now been opened up is whether adaptation by cultural evolution is a dead-end
strategy which, if continued, will lead to the extinction of the species, for example, by
generating overwhelming rates of cultural and environmental change. At this stage we
might just note, with the benefit of hindsight, that by the beginning of the Holocene,
cultural evolution had produced a variety of technologies with the potential to become
maladaptive in the longer term, eg anthropomorphic models of the natural world, a dual
morality (amity and enmity), tradition…
[[[[Note web page on non-verbal communication which outlines the six stages in the
evolution of the non-verbal brain –aquatic , amphibianreptilian, mammalian , primate,
Chapter finished and converted to 7B on 27/11/07 Updated from 5B to 6B on 14/5/07
Chapter 6 has been transferred to own file CHAPTER 6.doc in the Energy book folder
..back in 6A now 14/8/07
Is there a sense in which the evolutionary process which has produced everything from
elementary particles to the industrial age has always been the same process? And, if it is
not just one process, how many processes is it?
At a very general level, all evolutionary changes are certainly expressions of a single
universal process, namely one in which an existing dissipative system spontaneously
reorganises all or part of its static and kinetic structures in a way which converts higherquality energy (exergy) from one form to other forms at an increased rate and, in so
doing, increases the overall rate at which low-quality energy (entropy) is being produced
and dissipated into the parent environment. In this sense the evolutionary process is a
spontaneous equilibrating process, satisfying a ‘thermodynamic imperative’ to reduce
thermodynamic potential (flatten energy gradients) in the most effective available way.
Inverting this, the principle, the law perhaps, to which the evolutionary process is
conforming is that entropy spontaneously increases at the maximum available rate.
Newly-organised dissipative systems, singly or in combination, can behave in
extraordinarily diverse ways and have diverse impacts on their surroundings. Much
effort has gone into recognising recurring ‘context free’ patterns in such behaviours and
impacts. For example, the theory of non-linear dynamic systems (see chapter 3) suggests
various templates for the behavioural trajectory (eg cyclic, chaotic, point) of a system
entering a new basin of attraction and clarifies concepts like thresholds and resilient
behaviour (bouncebackability!). Some systems swing rapidly through a sequence of
basins, others persist stably in one basin. Other well-recognised behaviours include the
formation of hierarchies of systems (systems contained in or made out of other systems)
and various symbiotic interactions between systems. We might also note, as pointed out
by Salthe (1995), that, from a self-organisation perspective, the distinction between
evolution (moving between basins?) and development (moving within a basin?) becomes
blurred. They are overlapping historical processes.
Here, it is not our intention to attempt to abstractly and comprehensively classify what is
a superabundance of dynamic behavioural possibilities for mixtures of evolving systems.
Perhaps it is just semantics, but I find it more useful to think of these diverse behavioural
possibilities as variations on one basic evolutionary process rather than as separate
evolutionary processes.
[[[[probably of no use .. Systems emerge and go through a developmental or life cycle
process to The history of evolution not being used to mean history of the evolutionary
process …..not if has always been the one process anyway history off what things
evolved vs history of how things evolved ..has the evolutionary process changed ?
diversified?..what has evolved vs how it has evolved
Evolution as History
The history of evolution can be written in terms of the changing mix of products (types of
dissipative systems) which the evolutionary process has created, maintained, destroyed.
A broad–brush anthropocentric history of how the universe has evolved over time to
produce contemporary humans and the world they live in falls readily into three
overlapping ‘eons’, for want of a recognised word. These are the Physico-chemical Eon,
the Biological Eon and the Cultural Eon---names chosen to suggest the advent and
proliferation (and eventual decline in numbers) of what are, from the perspective of their
human significance, three radically different types of dissipative systems. That is, they
are radically different in terms of the types of energy and materials they take in and pass
out and in the types of kinetic and static structures they use those inputs to create and
Central to understanding this temporal sequence is the ‘piggybacking’ idea of path
dependence, eg that biological systems of the Biological Eon could not have evolved
without the prior evolution of physico-chemical systems and cultural systems of the
Cultural Eon could not have evolved without the prior evolution of biological systems.
Nor could the systems of any eon persist without the survival of systems from previous
eons, inasmuch as it is these which nourish that eon’s systems with flows of materials and
Just as the history of evolution can be subdivided into eons, the history of each eon can
be subdivided into overlapping ‘ages’ identifying periods of emergence and proliferation
of markedly dissimilar types of dissipative systems. Thus, in the Physico-chemical Eon,
physical systems first emerged during the radiation age that followed the big bang and
subsequently diversified over billions of years. Following the condensation of material
particles in a cooling universe (the particulate age), this eon produced successive
overlapping waves of galaxy formation (galactic age), star formation (stellar age) and
planet formation (planetary age). Particles, galaxies, stars and planets are dissipative
systems which come into existence and which, in time, ‘die’ in some sense. Each age
signifies a major transition in the evolutionary process’s reigning product mix.
It was only with the formation of planet Earth and its chemically-rich water bodies that
the chemical age, a link between the Physico-chemical Eon and the Biological Eon,
became possible. It was in the chemical age that life’s precursors---sets of linked
autocatalytic chemical reactions feeding (metaphorically) off each other---first emerged
from an environment capable of sustaining supplies of suitably energetic raw materials to
these dissipative cycles.
The Biological Eon
The Biological Eon is conventionally, and adequately enough for present purposes,
divided into a sequence of ages that encompasses the following: an age of ecosystems
supporting unicells, an age of ecosystems supporting multicells, an age of ecosystems
supporting fishes, an age of ecosystems supporting reptiles[[land animals??]], an age of
ecosystems supporting mammals[and flowering plants??]], and an age of ecosystems
supporting humans.
Living systems provide an early and important example of dissipation through the
conversion of chemical energy to kinetic and thermal energy. Such systems depend for
their survival on a process which is conceptually and operationally different from the
process determining the survival of the physical and chemical systems which preceded
them. At the heart of that novel process is the capacity of early life forms, namely singlecelled prokaryotes, to grow (ie process energy at an increasingly higher rate) to a
physically-determined ‘maximum’ size and then (approximately) self-replicate by
dividing into two smaller, but otherwise still similar, physically-separate parts, each of
which can disperse (eg drift away) and regrow to ‘maximum’ size, provided energy and
material resources are not limiting. The fact that its parts are dispersed need not stop us
regarding a population of single-cell sub-systems, formed by a cascade of divisions, as
just one dissipative system.
Just as all dissipative systems take in energy and materials, they all produce outputs or
products which can be described in terms of energy and material fluxes. The terms
autopoietic (literally, self-creating) and allopoietic (see chapter 3) are a recognition that
the outputs of living and non-living systems are fundamentally different. Non-living
systems are allopoietic, meaning that they produce things different from themselves, eg
volcanoes do not produce more volcanoes. Living systems, being autopoietic, produce
outputs which, following growth, will be very similar to themselves; a population of
unicellular organisms outputs small unicellular organisms, each of which stands to
produce a population of unicellular organisms!
Non-living systems rely for their survival on the energy-materials fluxes that drive them
staying within certain ‘fixed’ tolerance limits, limits which can be thought of as defining
that system’s niche in environmental space. If the system’s environment keeps changing
in any particular direction it will eventually move beyond the environmental limits
defining the system’s niche and the system will necessarily reorganise. Thus, if energy
gradients are flattening, the system will tend to collapse, disaggregate, simplify or shrink
and, if energy fluxes are rising, the system will tend to grow or complexify. [[activation
Early living systems, eg dispersed populations of similar unicellular organisms, were
somewhat different. They relied (a metaphor) for their survival in a changing and
spatially-variable chemical ‘soup’ on two attributes which followed from their tendency
to bud off imperfect copies of themselves (imperfect in terms of the molecular ‘species’
feeding and participating in the cell’s autocatalytic cycles). One attribute was a tendency
to occupy (drift into) all accessible parts of the niche. The other was a tendency to extend
the niche to include environments where occasional imperfect copies proved able to
survive and replicate more reliably than their parents. Both tendencies improved the
population’s survival prospects. For example, a small catastrophe which wipes out part
of the occupied environment will still leave part of the population to survive and perhaps
multiply. Or, if the environment changed so that more of it was favourable to some
particular sort of ‘imperfect copy’, then that particular component of the population
would expand in numbers to fill the ‘new’ environment.
For this two-pronged survival strategy (another metaphor) to work, each part of a
dividing organism has to reliably ‘inherit’ a spread, a starter kit so to speak, of all of the
chemical resources needed for autocatalytic growth to proceed. But not too reliably; a
population of cells which all have exactly the same capacity as their parents to process
environmental materials through an autocatalytic growth process may be less able to
survive a change in the availability of environmental materials than a population in which
individuals vary to some extent. Conversely, if the inheritance process is too unreliable
then most offspring cells will be unable to continue growing and dividing and the
population will remain small and at risk from local catastrophes. The optimum degree of
reliability in this ‘divide and bequeath’ strategy will depend in some complex way on the
variability of the environment.
Even though there are, at this early stage in life’s history, no genes being transmitted
between generations, a form of natural selection is nonetheless operating. When
individuals vary in terms of their autocatalytic chemistry, some will grow faster and
divide more frequently than others, ie they will be selected. Genes and chromosomes
evolved subsequently, functioning as a mechanism which reliably transmitted, not so
much the molecules required for autocatalytic growth, but encoded information which
triggered the construction of all necessary molecules from the raw materials diffusing
into the cell. In time it would be the occasional imperfect replication of genes (not of the
molecules participating in the cell’s autocatalytic cycles) that would generate unicellular
organisms of differential fitness and hence create the possibility of natural selection.
Gene-based natural selection would, in more time, lead to adaptations such as a capacity
for directed mobility or for photosynthesis.
While gene-based natural selection is most commonly thought of as a process which
leads to speciation, it is, more fundamentally, a process which increases the survival
prospects of multi-organism dissipative systems located in a heterogeneous and changing
environment. Just as gene-based natural selection led to populations of organisms of
various species being more likely to survive for a time, so did the emergence of cultural
inheritance and cultural selection in populations with a capacity for individual learning
and imitation.
The Cultural Eon
When it comes to the Cultural Eon, there is, again, a well-recognised sub-division of
history’s passing parade of human societies. While culture, in the sense of transmitting
learned behaviour to others, could well pre-date the age of mammals, it suffices here to
divide the Cultural Eon into a hunting-gathering (or foraging) age, a farming-herding
age, an urban age and an industrial age. And while the seeds of a post-industrial age
have no doubt germinated, the paramount feature of the dissipative systems that will
characterise that next age is not yet clear enough to give it a specific name.
Of these several ages nominated as comprising the Cultural Eon, this book has so far
looked only at hunting-gathering. We have particularly explored how cultural
innovations in the hunting-gathering age, including material, social, cognitive and
communicative technologies, co-evolved with such notable biological transitions in the
age of humans as those in brain size and organisation, the vocal apparatus, body size and
maturation rate. After the end of the last glacial, as energy flows through the biosphere
increased [[??probably Q10]] and climates changed, the stage was set for the next major
re-organisation of the Cultural Eon, namely a shift to a farming-herding age. It is to the
evolution of farming-herding and later societies that we now turn.
The last ice age ended with Eurasia experiencing a period of severe ‘glacial aridity’.
From 20-18 kya temperatures were lower and glaciers more extensive than at any time
during the previous 100 kyrs. Sea levels were about 130 m below present levels with, for
example, Tasmania and New Guinea being linked to Australia by land bridges. As
rainfall diminished, half the land between the tropics turned to desert. In Australia the
population was reduced by, perhaps, 80 per cent with plant growth being slowed by low
temperatures, low rainfall and low levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Humans
survived in a few refugia across the continent.
Thereafter, temperatures began to rise, but not reliably; there were sharp cooling periods
around 14 kya (called the Older Dryas event) and 13 kya---the Younger Dryas event.
Nonetheless, the onset of a warmer wetter climate created opportunities for a variety of
more sedentary lifestyles (still based on hunting, fishing and gathering though) in places
where food supplies could be obtained year-round. Populations grew under these more
settled conditions.
12 000 BP-6000 BP The Neolithic Revolution
Along with the final retreat of the glaciers, about 12 kya, came a dramatic reduction in
climate variability. The benign Holocene had begun. Much of Europe became covered
with dense forests and most of the large animals of the Ice Age either moved north or
went extinct. In the Middle East’s ‘fertile crescent’, wild barley and wheat could be relied
on to produce harvestable quantities of seeds in most years while wild sheep,
cattle[??]goats and pigs flourished on the expanding grasslands. Photosynthesis rates
rose by, perhaps, 50 percent in response to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rising from
190 ppm to 250 ppm.99 Here, the stage was being set for the emergence between 11000
and 8000 BP (Before Present) of a village-based Neolithic (new stone age) society based
on the deliberate planting of cereal crops, some primitive irrigation and on domesticating
and hand-feeding indigenous social animals. Some, as their flocks of animals grew,
became nomadic tribespeople searching for larger and larger areas of grasslands.
There were setbacks. Some 8200 years ago, sea levels, which had been rising since the
last glacial maximum were still some 15 m [[??]] below present levels. Then, for the
third time since the glacial maximum, came the collapse of glacial barriers which had
been holding back huge quantities of lake water in North America. Enormous floods
spilled into the north Atlantic causing rapidly rising global sea levels, short-term
flooding, and permanent inundation of coastal areas around the world. These areas
included much of south-east Asia (Sundaland) where established Neolithic societies
would have been destroyed or displaced. The flooding of the river valleys of the Persian
Gulf at that time suggests an origin for the story of Noah’s flood. Alternatively, the
Black Sea is estimated to have filled rapidly from the Mediterranean at this time.
Just as their pre-hominid African ancestors had adapted to the first stirrings of the
Pleistocene ice ages by moving from a declining gallery-forest habitat to an open forest
(savanna) habitat, Neolithic hunter-gatherers adapted to the suite of ecosystem changes
that marked the end of the Pleistocene by becoming farmers and herders. While the first
Neolithic peoples flourished in northern Iraq and Turkey, their technology ‘revolution’
spread to the Balkans by 7000 BP, to Egypt and central Europe by 6000 BP and to Britain
and parts of India by 5000 BP. The warm productive period---7000 BP to 5000 BP--which encouraged this spread is known as the Holocene thermal maximum.
Apart from agriculture and herding per se, Neolithic peoples developed a large suite of
supporting material technologies which would remain useful even as village agriculture
began to give way, in the Middle East, to large-scale irrigated agriculture. These
included artificial irrigation using canals and ditches; the plough; animal motive-power;
the sailboat; wheeled vehicles; orchard (hoe and dibble) husbandry; fermentation;
production and use of copper; bricks; the arch; glazing; animal hobbles.
Life for Neolithic villagers was mostly peaceful (although not necessarily longer and
more leisurely) because food was produced only in subsistence quantities and this left
little opportunity for non-producers such as priests and soldiers to be supported by
farmers and little temptation to attack other villages in search of food. Population grew
by the spatial spread, rather than the intensification, of settlement. More reliable food
supplies led to women being fertile for longer. Also, cereals were useful foods for
improving post-weaning survival rates.
The Origins of Agriculture as a Natural Experiment in Cultural Evolution Peter J.
Richerson, Robert Boyd, and Robert L. Bettinger (paper in e-library )
Neolithic villages could contain hundreds of people, ie they were much larger than most
hunter-gatherer groups. Social cohesion was underpinned by kinship systems which
imposed elaborate obligations to assist one’s ‘relations’. While language and chiefdoms
had emerged as important tools for organising and co-ordinating individual behaviour in
hunter-gatherer groups, their effectiveness was based on face-to-face contact, too
unwieldy a method for managing larger groups where people might not even know all
members of their group. It was in this context that social control through obedience to
the ‘voices of the gods’ or their earthly messengers emerged. Whether the ‘voices of the
gods’ were the hallucinated voices of dead chiefs who, over time, became godlike is the
hypothesis so marvellously explored by Julian Jaynes (1976). Perhaps the real
significance of this hypothesis is that it suggests a first mechanism for achieving social
co-ordination out of earshot (just as writing would at a later date). What can be said with
confidence is that religion and magic became increasingly important tools for managing
society as the size of social units continued to expand.
6000 BP-3000 BP The Urban Revolution
[[[[[[richerson e-library Near Eastern trajectory of agricultural innovation was also
comparatively rapid, but the whole sequence of increasing dependence upon plants and
then upon domesticated plants and animals leading to nearly complete dependence on
domesticates occupied roughly 4,000 years.]]]]]]]]]][[[[ TAKEOFF: in economics, the
point in the history of a society at which its economic surplus is sufficient to permit
continu al reinvestment in economic growth, so that growth becomes selfsustaining.]]
Large-scale irrigated agriculture began about 6000 years ago and, with the invention of
writing, marked the beginning of history proper. Sumeria, the first real civilization--meaning a society supporting cities and specialist occupations---appeared about 5500
years ago in southern Mesopotamia in the swampy flat lands around the lower reaches of
the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was a time of drying climates, making rain-fed
agriculture difficult, and people gravitated to large river valleys and their floodplains.
Soon after, c. 5000 years ago, a Nile valley civilisation appeared. In addition to writing,
this revolution in social organisation quickly spawned three particularly consequential
inventions---a solar calendar as still used, numerical notation and bronze (a tin-copper
alloy) for making tools and weapons.
Reclamations of the lower Nile and the Euphrates from their swamps were massive tasks
which could only be undertaken by large organised communities. The complexities of
setting-up and managing big irrigation systems devolved to a specialised priestly class
who were fed from large grain surpluses (partly explainable by the invention of the
plough as well as by high yields under irrigation), as was the warrior class which
emerged to protect those same surpluses from marauders. These same warriors were
responsible for the internal coercion which was beginning to emerge, alongside religion,
as an instrument of social control. The need to serve ‘the gods’ provided priestly
oligarchies with a rationale for organising the concentrated use of labour on public
As marauding [[??by horse-riding steppe peoples]]]] increased, command (military)
management replaced priestly management in the Mesopotamian and other irrigation
civilizations. As urban populations grew in the irrigation civilizations, additional
specialist occupations emerged and the technologies associated with these new
occupations advanced in step with the numbers who practised them. For example, the
construction of bronze weapons and tools needed, apart from metal workers, many
people, carts and animals to transport ores from far places and large quantities of timber
to make charcoal for smelting. It was the dominant military and priestly classes who now
took responsibility for the distribution of food in societies organised more-and-more
around occupational classes rather than fragmenting kinship groups; a new form of
economic system had emerged100.
In time, it was competition among the emerging city-states of southern Mesopotamia
(Lagash, Kish, Ur, Erech, Surupack, Larsa and Umma) for, inter alia, access to scarce
ores and timber which initiated an era of ‘survival through conquest’ that persisted across
Eurasia till, perhaps, the collapse of the Western Roman empire in 476 CE (Common
Era). Sargon of Kish defeated the other city states to create the world’s first empire, the
Akkadian empire, which lasted from 4330 BP till destroyed by drought in 4230 BP. As a
way of increasing a nation’s food supplies, empire-building proved to be a more effective
social technology than marauding once annual food surpluses in surrounding regions had
stabilised. In this way, through taxes and tributes, a conquered state makes its maximum
contribution to the conquering state in all years.
[[[[[4300 +- 200 BP (Peiser MPA) saw the collapse of a large number of major
civilisations ; The Old Kingdom in Egypt, the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia , the
early Bronze Age societies in Anatolia Greece and Israel, as well as the Indus Valley
civilisation in India and the Hongshan culture in China , the hilmand civilisation in
afghanistan]]] [[Peiser B 1998 Comparative analysis of late Holocene environmental
and social upheavals pp117-139 in Peiser BJ, Palmer Tand Bailey ME 9eds) Natural
Catastrophes during Bronze Age civilisations: Archaeological, Geological, astronomical
and cultural perspectives BAR International Series 728]]]]
It was the availability of food surpluses which induced a second (ie post-Neolithic) surge
in human numbers, this time in urban rather than rural areas. But waterborne diseases
(boosted by closer human contact) and the need to maintain and replace armies acted as
major checks on population growth. Only rich urban civilizations could sustain viruses
and armies which ate but did not produce. And, of course, once population rises to match
increased food supplies, a Malthusian trap closes, meaning that there is great pressure to
maintain or further increase food production. While urban populations acquired some
immunity to the new diseases of crowded civilisation, rural peasant populations did not--an important part of the success of urban elites in controlling outlying areas. More
In several medium energy societies, the Aztecs in Mexico for example, a market-based
system of distribution emerged rather than a socialist or state-controlled system. (White p
generally, skeletal evidence indicates that as soon as humans began to farm, health levels
declined due, perhaps, to population crowding, altered workloads, and increased
nutritional deficiencies
[[check dates??]] By about 3500 BP the Middle Eastern agricultural civilizations had
been joined by an Indian civilization in the upper Punjab area and a Chinese civilization
on the middle Hwang-Ho. The Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations began around
3500 BP. The classical Greek civilization on the Aegean Sea emerged about 3100 BP.
Across Eurasia, societies were now coming to be organised into spatially-extensive
politically-independent imperial command structures. Government-at-a-distance was
achieved through the bureaucratic principle of delegation. Taxes, collected on
commission for the central authority by feudal warlords, were the price of military
protection. Difficulties with transport and communications were persistent challenges to
the management of empires, as were fluctuations in crop yields. For instance, in 3628 BP
the Santorini volcano exploded, destroying, by tidal waves, the Minoan civilization in
Crete and initiating a period of volcanic winter, and political instability, worldwide. In
the words of McNeill (1979), most of Eurasian political history can be viewed as
unending fluctuation between imperial consolidation and peripheral feudal unrest,
punctuated at times by epidemics of invasion by mobile horse-riding nomads from the
animal-producing steppes which lay beyond areas suitable for cropping. Mass migrations
caused by floods, droughts and famines were common and led to invasions and, for some
peoples, servitude, eg the Jews.
The rate of technical and social innovation was now very low, possibly because most
communities were still living precariously, meaning that a close adherence to traditional
proven methods was a better strategy for survival than experimentation. Perhaps also, in
the interests of maintaining social control, imperial rulers would have actively
discouraged potentially-disruptive innovations. Indeed, the ruling classes had little
respect for or interest in farming and farm workers. Childe (??) notes only four major
innovations in the 2000 years after the urban revolution, say from 4600 BP---decimal
notation in Babylonia, iron smelting, a true alphabetical script ( (3300 BP) and aqueducts
for supplying city water (2700 BP). Massively important here was the advent, c.3400
BP, of economical methods of producing iron, for tools and weapons, on a large scale.
The Bronze Age ended with the somewhat mysterious collapse between 3225 BP and
3175 BP of at least 50 great Mediterranean cultural centres, including Troy, Mycenae and
Knossos. The geophysicist Amos Nur101 has suggested that a [[an intermittent]] chain of
earthquakes along a major fault line could have rocked city after city, degrading their
economic, social and political structures and leaving them vulnerable to marauders and
waves of hungry refugees. Certainly it was around this time that chariot armies of
Nur, Amos and Cline, Eric; (2000) "Poseidon's Horses: Plate Tectonics and Earthquake
Storms in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean", Journ. of Archael. Sc.
No 27 pps.43-63 -
various cities in the eastern Mediterranean succumbed to the iron swords of barbarian
foot soldiers. Drought too may have played a part.
The first millennium BCE was an era in the development of human societies when, across
Eurasia, human knowledge, beliefs and ways of thinking changed markedly. Before
reviewing a little of those changes and times, we will pause to abstract some working
perceptions from the tangle of ideas around the phenomenon of consciousness and its
relation to cognition.102
The Problem of Consciousness
The enormous yet inconclusive scientific (and other) literature on consciousness attests to
the difficulty we have in understanding its function, its evolution and its processual
nature. Defining it and its various forms, locating it within and between individuals and
species, and in time (when did it appear?) are likewise problematic.
That same large literature indicates that many think it important to understand
consciousness. Why? Plain curiosity is part of the answer. Another answer, for some, is
that consciousness is a cognitive technology which appears to have played a major role in
shaping human history and if we want to understand history we need to understand
consciousness. The specific perception here is that the process which produces
consciousness---call it the consciousness-generating process---is a general-purpose
technology which has helped humans to dramatically increase the rate at which they have
produced technologies intended to improve survival and life-quality prospects; and to
produce one-off plans for solving novel problems. Perhaps a clear understanding of this
technology can lead to its further improvement and hence to its making an increased
contribution to future human welfare.
Here, I propose to take a selective approach to the concept of consciousness. I will
restrict the term to an experience which, I believe, takes place only in humans (not little
children), namely the implementing of an ability to observe (watch), and to know that one
is observing, some of the operations of one's own (autonomous) mind. Note that, in this
rendition, consciousness (being conscious) is a process of introspective observing and is
quite distinct from what is being observed via this process, ie what I am conscious of
does not constitute consciousness. The telescope is not the landscape. Equally,
consciousness is not the cognitive processes which generate that which is being observed.
Failure to make these distinctions is a pervasive source of confusion. Others have
avoided this potential muddle by using another term for consciousness as it is being used
Mental activities involved in acquiring, processing, organising and using knowledge
here, eg Edelman’s (1989) term is self-conscious awareness and Torey’s is reflective
How does consciousness manifest itself? As a simple example, when you look at your
familiar finger, your brain recalls, from memory, a referent couplet made up of (a) a
stable and selective visual image, called a percept, of ‘my finger’ and (b) a verbal label
(finger) for that image. You are conscious of your finger if you are both aware of this
referent couplet and, reflectively, aware that you are aware of it; aware that you are
paying attention to it. The portion of experience being irradiated by consciousness
appears as clear and distinct against a background reality which is dim.104 While you
might be more aware of your finger if you have just hit it with a hammer, you are not
more conscious of that awareness. Differently, you might be subconsciously aware of
your finger in the sense that you move it in response to a stimulus, an itchy nose say,
without realising consciously that you are aware of your reaction. To be clear here,
subconscious awareness is not consciousness, is not self-conscious awareness.
Clarifying the Consciousness Experience
Before further discussing the mechanism and function of the consciousness process, there
are several aspects of the consciousness experience which, in the interests of later
discussion, need to be clarified:
[[reinstate bullets below ]]
Who is the observer, or, alternatively, since they are felt to be one and the same, whose
thoughts are being observed? Does it help to say that ‘I’ or ‘I, myself,’ am the observer;
or, to say that the thoughts of which there is awareness are felt to be the experience of a
self or an ego or a me?105 The verbal labels ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my self’ and ‘my ego’ have all
Torey Kant’s apperception??
Whitehead Adventures of Ideas p 270)]]]
105 torey paperin J Consciousness Studies The Immaculate
Misconception 13(12) 2006 105-110. Zoltan Torey reminds us that “ …the ‘self’ is something
we experience, not some entity in us that experiences” ..we have a’sense of self’ that builds up
with life experience.?? [[[[[[[[[[[The self as a complex process For process philosophy
conceptualises the core ‘self’ of a person as a unified manifold of ongoing and potential
processes –of action andcapys , tendencies , dispositionsto action 9both physical an
psychical0 –then we therebysecure a concept of personhood that renders the self
experientially accessible, seeig that experiencing itself simply consists of such processes …
the unity of a person is aunity of experience –thecoalescence of all one’s diverse mictroexperiences as part of one unified macro-process self is the complex process composed of
those various activities]]]]]]]]]] NB Jaynes THE SELF IS AN OBJECT OF
CONSCIOUSNESS ..below?]]][[[the self is a unification of past experience]]]
come to be applied to that [[(the experient)]]??]] which experiences consciousness---I
have thoughts and, when I am conscious, I observe (am aware of) my thoughts, and I am
aware of myself and I am aware of myself being aware of my thoughts.106 Whenever you
think ‘I am observing such-and-such a thought,’ it is a sure sign of consciousness. When
you answer the question ‘What are you thinking about’? you are stating what you are
conscious of at that moment. But being an abstraction which cannot be pointed at, we
can only know this observed and observing ego metaphorically, viz. the ego is like an
observer, like, say, an animal observing its prey. Like other abstract concepts (eg energy,
gravity) we can only say what consciousness does and how it behaves operationally, not
what it is.
One difficulty in referring to one’s ‘awareness of awareness’ metaphorically is that it is
just not like anything else we experience. I am attracted to Julian Jaynes’ insight that all
experiences of consciousness appear to be glimpses into an imagined mind-space which
is a metaphor or model of real space (the real world) and in which an imagined ego, what
he calls an analogue ‘I’ or a metaphorical ‘me’, can observe and, metaphorically, move
around.107 Each referent we become conscious of appears to have its own definite
boundary surface and to be separate from other referents, ie can be thought about
separately. Referents can be ordered in mind-space in ways analogous to the various
ways in which objects can be spatially related in reality. Mental acts are analogues of
bodily acts. So, when I am conscious of my finger, I am (metaphorically) looking into
my mind-space and seeing ‘me’ looking at my finger, ie I am aware of three things: my
finger, ‘me’ and ‘me’ looking at my finger.
For abstract entities too, we use the metaphor of seeing, of observing, to understand (give
meaning to) how they are related, eg (the word) justice seems to be close to (the word)
fairness in mind-space. George Lakoff points out that, metaphorically, consciousness is
‘up’(eg, wake up), and unconsciousness is ‘down’ (eg, she dropped off to sleep).108
As for entities which are related in (abstract) time, we think of them, metaphorically, as
being located ‘before’ and ‘after’ along a ‘time line.’ In particular, words in sentences
and thoughts emerge sequentially through time and that might explain the pervasiveness
of the spatial metaphor for understanding thought processes. It will be suggested
presently that the ability to manipulate words in ways which are directly analogous to the
ways objects can be manipulated in the real world is the basis of advanced cognitive
In Jungian psychology the self includes the mind’s unconscious processes as well as that
which experiences consciousness, namely, the ego. I am using the terms ‘self’ and ‘ego’
interchangeably here.
107 ???????? Understanding something is commonly a matter of finding a suitable metaphor (A
is B) or simile (A is like B) or analogue (A is like B in part) for the entity we wish to
understand.We will use metaphor as a catch-all term (see Richards IA (1936) The Philosophy
of Rhetoric Clarendon Press Oxford
108 (p15 Metaphors…)
What categories of thoughts might be accessed and what cannot be accessed through a
consciousness experience?
When you are conscious, you are always conscious of something, a referent or so-called
intentional object, usually a thing or a relationship, perhaps in memory, perhaps in the
internal (intra-body) environment, perhaps in the external environment. Thus, the
contents of the three main types of memory---short-term, long-term and sensory---are, in
principle, accessible by the ego, ie can be experienced consciously. Long-term memory
includes an organised body of knowledge, a narrative, about one’s personal history.
According to Freud, the ego is like an agent of the mind (a metaphor), by means of which
the subject acquires a sense of unity and identity, ‘a coherent organization of mental
processes.’ For the moment though, we are more concerned with ego as that which
experiences consciousness rather than as that which builds identity.
By definition, thoughts in the unconscious mind are inaccessible through the
consciousness experience. For example, you cannot observe your thoughts at the
moment of making a decision, only, at best, the thoughts that go into the decision and the
thoughts that come out of the decision-making process. It is this apparent spontaneity of
our decisions which invites speculation that we might have ‘free will.’ Similarly when
retrieving memories: to the extent that you cannot perceive, at the moment of selection,
what memory frame will be retrieved next (it just arrives), there is an inclination to
impose meaning on this mystery by attributing the selection made to an act of will on the
part of the ego.
Another basic aspect of the consciousness experience, sometimes called a sense of
doership, perhaps better called a proprioceptive sense, is the feeling that you are the
entity creating (cf. experiencing) the sense of awareness of your thoughts. As will be
discussed below, the consciousness process has a motor component (sub-vocalisation).
The importance of this is that all motor activities are proprioceptive, meaning that when
they are (consciously) executed they generate a feeling that you, the executor, the
analogue ‘I’, are carrying out the activity.109 The consciousness process seems to involve
an understandable extension of the proprioceptive feeling from body awareness to
thoughts awareness. [[not sure about this interpretation of propceptn ][[[ looksok i
think]] ] [[if you do become aware of your thoughts, you will recognise them as your
thoughts because they are a motor activity and all motor activities that come to awareness
evoke this feeling of body awareness ..hang on basic proprioception is the tagging of
body movement information with an awareness that it is information coming from the
body—not necessarily conscious ]][[[have just said enough here to allow better
formulation next time I look at this para]] [[torey says proprioception is …
Note that awareness of what your body is doing (ie proprioception) may or may not come
to consciousness.
[[[proprioception normally (not in anarchic hand case) associated with sense of
ownership joel smith review ]]]]
Being conscious of certain thoughts need not imply any knowledge of the source or
origin of those thoughts. Normally though, irrespective of their specific content and
origin, one’s ‘visible’ thoughts are felt to be self-authored. That is, the thinking process
which produces ‘my’ conscious thoughts is felt to be autonomous. The thoughts I am
conscious of are not the products of another’s thinking which are being channelled
through me. [[[isn’t this the same as proprioception??]]]
While most people, through socialisation, do come to believe in the autonomy of their
own thinking (it can't be proved), there are those, notably schizophrenics, who believe
that at least some of their ‘thoughts’ are freshly planted in them by outside entities. Many
schizophrenics experience auditory hallucinations in which authority figures, even gods,
tell them what to think and do. And, as will be further discussed below, it is Julian
Jaynes’ hypothesis that it is only since 2nd millennium BCE that most people have felt
themselves to be the authors of their own thoughts and actions.
Consciousness is a thin, intermittent and discrete (ie, either ‘on’ or ‘off’) experience.
Few of the brain’s hundred billion neurons are involved in an experience of being
reflectively aware of one’s thoughts and, we suspect, if memory serves aright, that one is
conscious for but a tiny fraction of each day. Consciousness is rooted in the ‘here and
now’ reality of everyday life and it is to this reality that consciousness returns after each
excursion into the consideration of a what-to-do problem outside everyday experience.
The set of referents that an individual, and his/her society as a whole, are potentially
conscious of is continually expanding. In Jaynes’ phrase we are constantly renewing and
enlarging our mind-space with each new thing or relation ‘consciousised.’ Every new
suite of words coming into a language mirrors the creation of new percepts and concepts,
expanding the spread of what one can be conscious of but not changing the essential
nature of the consciousness experience. The exception to that may be consciousness
itself. It is at least plausible that you cannot be reflectively conscious if you do not have a
vocabulary which allows you to describe (or agree) what it is to be conscious, eg nonhuman animals, little children.
The Consciousness-generating Process
[[[[[[[[[[ Gerrans] It is not just the size of the prefrontal cortex but its dense
with posterior, limbic and brainstem areas which enables offline cognition.
These connections are both afferent and efferent which enables bi-directional
signalling between the prefrontal cortex and posterior areas. Furthermore
while most connections from posterior networks to the prefrontal cortex are
excitatory the prefrontal cortex has extensive inhibitory connections (via GABA
interneurons) to posterior areas. This interconnectivity enables construction of
transient recurrent circuits distributed across the prefrontal cortex and posterior
assemblies (Friston 2002). The prefrontal cortex maintains salient representations
by enhancing the level of activation in their implementation
circuitry and inhibiting activation levels in other circuits competing for prefrontal
resources (Fuster 1997). ]]]]]]]]]]]]
We have already noted that neither the experience of consciousness per se nor the entities
one is conscious of should be confounded with the mental processes which generate the
experience of consciousness; there is more to the consciousness process than the
consciousness experience. Here, I will draw on ideas in Zoltan Torey’s path-breaking
book, The Crucible of Consciousness110 to identify what the consciousness-generating
process generates in addition to the consciousness experience itself, and how it does so111.
Torey’s model of the self-aware brain concentrates on three interconnected regions of the
physical brain each of which can be regarded as a self-organising (sub) system of
neurons---storing and re-organising information as well as continuously receiving and
transmitting information in the form of neural messages, electrical impulses, along
neuronal pathways. The three are the right hemisphere’s awareness system, the left
hemisphere’s speech system and the brainstem’s arousal system.
The awareness system
The awareness system is located in the frontal lobes of the brain’s right hemisphere.
Metaphorically, it ceaselessly generates an ever-evolving situation report (What’s
happening?) on the body and its environment based on the receipt of diverse inputs from
both outside (via the sense organs) and inside the body (from muscles, from other parts of
Torey, Z 200?
Calling the consciousness process the consciousness-generating process risks giving the
impression that the only thing the consciousness process does is to generate consciousness.
What I am calling the consciousness –generating processis similar, I think, to what Torey
calls the mind system.
the brain, from the nervous system and from the endocrine glands). The awareness
system integrates (totalises) or translates all these inputs into an ever-updating internally
consistent set of ‘off the shelf’ percepts called an endogram. An endogram is something
like a frame from a movie, a manageable summary of what the brain is aware of at the
time, a model of the world outside the awareness system. Being ‘internally consistent’
simply means that the endogram’s constituent percepts are recognised as being related in
some fashion. Remember that a percept is anything that can be separately identified and
named, ie be labelled with a word or sentence.
All sensory inputs reaching the awareness system [[[[what about saying ‘all sensory
inputs that signal change in the environment??]] are immediately cycled through an
arousal system located in the limbic area and reticular formation of the upper
brainstem.112 Here an emotional ‘flag’, positive or negative, is grafted onto the percept
before it is returned to the awareness system. Depending on the emotional significances
assigned to different percepts, different parts of the endogram will thus express different
degrees of arousal and , hence, will elicit different degrees of attention from the ego. Any
‘insignificant’ percepts will not even reach the endogram. Functionally, a ‘cognitive
technology’ of selectively attending to those referents in the endogram with significant
emotional overtones protects against sensory overload in the awareness system and,
hence, against undirected behaviour. Also, percepts for which the added emotional
overtones exceed a threshold intensity are embedded in long-term (permanent) memory
storage from where they will be retrievable in the future (along with the added feelings).
[[[[[A metaphor for awareness is shining a torch on something that seems to be out of
place or disturbed, not as you expected it to be, not matching your memory or your model
of what it should be like …. Awareness of awareness is like seeing yourself on a
surveillance camera as you are shining your torch on the item which has attracted your
attention ..when something comes to awareness it is like it suddenly stands out against a
much vaguer background ]]]]][[awareness is an EXPERIENCE??]]
The awareness system does more than assemble percepts. The awareness system also
has a word response mechanism which first classifies and then attaches a word-label to
each percept entering the the focal or high attention part of the endogram. Thus, all input
experiences which make it to the focal area have are first converted into stable referent
The reticular activation system is a network of fibres and nuclei in the brainstem
whose function is to activate portions of the cortex. The limbic area is an evolutionarily
ancient part of the brain, concerned with emotions and instinctive behaviour.
couplets (ie, percept plus name) drawn from a largely pre-existing ‘library’ of long-term
memories of such couplets.113
The main task of the awareness system is to manipulate emotionally significant percepts
and, with the help of feedback from the speech system about the meaning of those
significant percepts, devise a ‘rolling’ what-to-do plan, an action schema, a narratised
sequence of motor behaviours. Such schemata are automatically read and initiated
(imitated) once attention fades, ie as the endogram moves on, updates, in response to new
sensory and reflected inputs. It is only if and while attention is sustained in some way
that motor action is suppressed.
The speech system
The speech system, located in the temporal and frontal lobes of the left hemisphere,
receives, as its predominant input, words and sentences corresponding to a selection of
the percepts in the endogram of the awareness system. That is, it receives, via the crosscortical link, the word parts (not the percept parts) of those endogram couplets currently
being brought to high attention by the arousal component of Torey’s self-aware brain. In
functional terms, this inter-hemisphere information flow facilitates co-ordination of the
activities of the two hemispheres; it ensures that corresponding words in the left
hemisphere and word-percept pairs in the right hemisphere are processed, if not
simultaneously, then in rapid oscillatory sequence. This means that the two hemispheres
will never be processing unrelated data sets.
The speech system manipulates this verbal input, putting it, along with other associated
words, through a rule-based word-ordering or thinking process and outputting the
resulting narrative114 back to the focal region of the awareness system. Thus, there is a
‘speech loop’, and nothing more, connecting the awareness system and the speech
system. As well as transmitting ‘covert’ speech back to the awareness system, it is this
same speech system which activates the vocal apparatus, as needed, to produce ‘overt’
speech---much as the right hemisphere’s awareness system is responsible for generating
peripheral motor activity such as moving a finger.
It is the back link from the speech system to the awareness system (call it the S-A link
perhaps?) which is at the heart of the consciousness-generating process. Why and how?
Basically, it is because the awareness system treats the neural excitations, the stream of
covert speech, the thoughts, coming to it from the speech system in much the same way
Obviously this ‘library’ is evolving, as when vocabulary increases. Also, the identification
of percepts includes a ‘constancy mechanism’ which allows a changing input eg a moving
person, to continue to be associated with the same percept.
114 Narrative: An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the
establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.
as it treats ‘real’ speech coming from another person, ie as sensory input.115 This has
various consequences:
One is that the verbal thoughts feeding back into the awareness system generate a stream
of visual, auditory etc percepts, just like referents coming to the brain through the sense
organs.116 We can note in passing that research shows incoming words to be highly
effective in evoking their matching percepts when they reach the awareness system.117
This is because, mostly, incoming thoughts have attentional priority over other sensory
[[[[[[combinations of words guided by rules of syntax give meaningful information about
relations between the words and hence about understood relationships between the
objects or ideas symbolised by those wrds]]]]]]]] price jjs site ]]]]] [[[The theory is
supported by arguments regarding the two-hemispheres of the brain. The language center,
based in the left hemisphere, communicated across the corpus collosum to the right
hemisphere, and this interior exchange of linguistically coded information was
subjectively experienced in ways that gave rise to the long lineage of literary and
religious cultural traditions that includes Muses, guardian angels, prophetic visitations by
Greek and Hebrew and Christian gods and saints. The rare Joan of Arcs and Saint Pauls
of the current two millennial era were preceded in the prior two or three millennia by
whole societies steeped in the oracular mode of consciousness, as opposed to the more
common ego consciousness of modern times, according to Jaynes. And in that era, the
authoritarian command and the rule of social hierarchy were the apex of human social
and moral and psychological development. Today, through the discouragement of our
‘betters’ toward more conscious pursuits, we are in the habit of harking back to those
days and that era as if nostalgically longing for a better time, an Edenic existence in
which certainty about important things still existed.]]]]]]]]]]
Now, because a large part of what the speech system transmits to the awareness system is
simply a reflection of what the awareness system transmitted to the speech system some
fraction of a second earlier, the speech system is effectively telling the awareness system
what it has just been thinking, perhaps ‘loudly’ enough for those thoughts to ‘break
through’ to consciousness, to reflective awareness (‘Hey, I have been thinking about X’)
and to be perceived, proprioceptively, as self-authored. For this to happen, and it only
115 [[[It helps to understand this to recognise that the speech area of the left hemisphere
developed, evolutionarily, from an area of the brain formerly used to control muscular
activity.]]]]] Indeed R Allott argues that each type of sound made during speech is still
accompanied by a specific residual muscular activity in the arms, face etc.
116 Jaynes, J (1986) Canadian Psychology 27(2) Consciousness and the voices of the mind.
Jaynes makes the further point that before the emergence of modern self-awareness, people
treated imagined words as though they were spoken words.
117 Torey p 53
happens intermittently, the words which the awareness system ‘hears’ from the speech
system must have evoked a threshold degree of arousal from the attention-arousal system.
In principle, what is happening here is no different from a finger on a hot stove evoking a
threshold degree of arousal. Note that consciousness is not being ‘explained’ here
beyond saying that, because transmitting sub-vocalised words is a motor act, one is aware
of that act no more and no less than one is aware of any motor act the body executes.
Feedback from the speech system to the awareness system has other effects too. One is
that the endogram will keep getting updated, not just by ‘real’ sensory inputs, but by the
speech system’s verbal understanding of the meaning of the endogram selection it has
just processed. We will talk presently about the various cognitive techniques the speech
system uses to process input from the awareness system. A related consequence here is
that feedback from the speech system amplifies or reinforces the arousal levels already
associated with the focal percepts of the endogram and hence reinforces the tendency for
these focal percepts to be embedded in long-term memory. Feedback which has
sufficient emotional significance to enter consciousness is also particularly likely to enter
long-term memory. Note though that while we tend to remember what we become
conscious of, it is not because we have become conscious of it. Note also that it is only
while ‘reverberation’ around the feedback loop between speech and awareness systems
continues that thoughts can remain in short-term memory, and in consciousness, and that
motor responses will be delayed.
The arousal (limbic) system
[[[[[[….?? .it is largely through parental approval-disapproval of the child’s learning
attempts that the limbic system acquires the library of thought-feeling couplets against
which a proposed behaviour will be evaluated ]]]]] [[[[Note the Parallel between Freud’s
unconscious and the limbic system Damasio etc are ever more interested in the
unconscious, emotional steering of cerebral processes.elbry]]] Note also Watson’s
experiments with Little Albert and making him fearful of the white rat]]
The human brain is unique in its asymmetry. Unlike any infrahuman brain, the left and
right hemispheres have different functions. The left hemisphere is largely responsible for
managing speech-thought and the right hemisphere is largely responsible for managing
other behaviours, notably peripheral motor actions. A feedback loop between the two
hemispheres carries information which ensures that both speech-thought and other
behaviours are co-ordinated, ie are working together on what-to-do plans/options for
meeting the person’s needs.
The aforementioned arousal system in the upper brainstem is strongly connected to the
right hemisphere and weakly connected to the left hemisphere. It has several functions:
One, as noted, is to help shape which of the many inputs to the sensory cortices of the
right hemisphere will be represented in and focussed on as percepts in the current
endogram---and hence which will be sent to the left hemisphere as inputs to the speech
But as well as shaping input to the speech system, the arousal system is fundamental to
the processing of the re-organised and upgraded words being returned from the speech
system to the awareness system. The speech system processes inputs from the awareness
system, linking them with related word-percept pairs and generating a sequence of
behavioural options which are routed, one at a time, through the awareness system and on
to the arousal system. There, each is evaluated by the arousal system until one which
does not generate a ‘rejection’ response arrives. In the absence of such an inhibitory
response from the arousal system, the behavioural option currently in the awareness
system now initiates a corresponding motor response. That is, when attention is released,
the endogram moves on and a motor response follows. Each behavioural option which
‘fails’ to trigger a motor response from the awareness system is re-sent via the corpus
callosum back to the speech system for further processing and thereby sustains the brain’s
attention to the current what-to-do situation a little longer.
The infrahuman brain does not have such a capacity to delay responding (initiating a
motor response) to a stimulus (input) and so has no capacity to make decisions in the
sense of selecting a motor response from multiple options generated by interaction
between the speech and awareness systems. But neither, for most of the time, is the
human brain choosing amongst multiple behavioural options. In practice, learned
customary and habitual responses to the standard situations of everyday life provide
immediate answers to most what-to-do questions. But, when these break down, ie do not
match some novel situation, a behaviour generating and choosing process generates
successive behavioural options till one is judged ‘good enough’ and implemented. If the
implemented behaviour is associated with a threshold level of emotional significance its
image (a) rises into consciousness and (b) is stored, along with its context, in long-term
Imagine walking from A to B. Most of the time the selection of where to place your feet
is handled by habituated rules that initiate peripheral motor responses. If an obstacle
appears, you stop and, probably unconsciously, try to pick an acceptable way around it,
one that meets certain evolving criteria. What you have done, given the ‘warning’
endogram, is switch from one kind of motor response---peripheral---to another kind of
motor response---intra-cortical. And if the obstacle is a snake the situation will rise into
consciousness! All endograms produce a motor response of some sort but, if you are a
dog and not a human, you can only respond with the best available peripheral motor
response in your ‘stimulus-reponse’ library. You have no ‘off-line’ motor response
capability. In either case, dog or human, the stimulus mix changes and the endogram is
updated once more.
Is consciousness an epiphenomenon?
It is not at all obvious that the effectiveness of the brain’s what-to-do decision making
would decline if consciousness did not keep popping up. Torey says (p 155) that without
reflective awareness we could not upgrade and enrich our range of choice, insight and
behavioural options. I am doubtful. These are ‘rewards’ from the consciousnessgenerating process, not from consciousness per se. While that name is not wrong (it does
generate consciousness), it might more accurately reflect the significance of this process
to call it the behaviour–choosing process. It is, after all, the process which allows the
brain to generate and evaluate alternative responses to what-to-do situations---rather than
just accepting and initiating the first behavioural impulse evoked [evoked in the limbic
system] by the situation.
So, unless it can be suggested how awareness of one’s current thoughts might change
one’s next thoughts, the simplest conclusion to draw (the null hypothesis) is that it does
not. Unfortunately, as with the question of freedom of the will, there does not appear to
be a way of testing this hypothesis. The suggestion lurking here is that realising what
you are thinking does not change what you are about to think. However, this is in no way
incompatible with the idea that what you are currently thinking will always influence
what you think next. Remember that awareness of an action tends to follow, not precede,
the action. Before one utters a sentence, one is not conscious of being about to utter those
specific words.
Before writing the consciousness experience off as an epiphenomenon, a byproduct of the
behaviour-choosing process, consider the speculation that without consciousness’
particular contribution to long-term memory one would have little understanding of what
others are thinking and, hence, what they might do. The particular contribution being
referred to is that each thought coming from the left brain and passing into both
consciousness and long-term memory carries with it the knowledge that is an internallygenerated thought. One consequence of this is a selective memory trace of one’s
(conscious) thoughts over time, something that ancient people would not have had. Not
only are these memories (eg of past interactions with the environment) a large part of
one’s self-knowledge, and hence a large part of the self, they allow one to infer that
others, so like oneself physically, may well be like oneself mentally. As psychologist
Nicholas Humphrey says, consciousness gives every human a privileged picture of her
own self as a model for what it is like to be another human.118 In turn, at least after the
invention of ‘questions’, this recognition opens the way to asking the other what,
specifically, they are thinking of and, by comparing percepts, take part in building a
‘collective mind’ of shared stable percepts---a basis for efficient communication and cooperation.
Similarly, having access to a history of one’s thoughts and their consequences, plus some
understanding of causation, allows one to improve one’s thinking by asking questions of
oneself about relationships amongst one’s memories, eg constructing narratives.
Memory is at the heart of cognition. Consciousness is rescued from being an
epiphenomenon by its role in tagging long-term memories with the useful realisation that
they are past thoughts. I am reminded of the technique of filming an athlete, not to
improve the performance being filmed but, after analysis, to improve future
Consciousness is not Cognition
Before looking to understand the immense significance of the cognition-consciousness
revolution of the first millennium BCE, and remembering how consciousness, its content
and the processes within which it is generated get confused, it will help emphasise these
distinctions to recall a few aspects of the cognitive instruments, the thinking tools, which
modern humans use in responding to, and, indeed, constructing what-to-do challenges.119
Arguably, Homo sapiens’ core cognitive skill is conceptual thinking, the ability to
perceive similarities and differences, to develop abstract concepts by inductive
generalisation, memorise and name them, and use those names (words) to construct
grammatical sentences expressing relations between concepts, eg snow is white. To a
large extent, we think about concepts and percepts and we think with words; concepts are
bearers of meaning, as opposed to words being agents of meaning.
We will not attempt to classify the many ways in which concepts can be related/
manipulated, verbally or mentally, in sentences and strings of sentences, just mention
several which have proved particularly useful in support of what-to-do plan-making:
Factual propositions are statements about concepts, statements which are either true or
false depending on the meanings of the concepts. A question is an inquiry into a
proposition's truth value.
If this…then that statements reflect (i) causal understanding of relationships, in time,
between concepts or (ii) structural understanding of spatial relationships between
concepts. If war is declared, then truth will be the first casualty.
Metaphors of the form Xs are like Ys are the starting point for developing and naming
new concepts; and for ‘understanding’ existing abstract concepts. My love is like a red,
In John Dewey’s terms, this is an instrumentalist perspective--- thought exists as an
instrument of adjustment to the environment. Specifically, terms of thought and meaning
are relative to the function they perform and that their validity or truth is determined by
their efficacy.
red rose. Language itself grows by metaphor, helping us to understand the unfamiliar
(Jaynes 1976).
Narratives (stories) are accounts comprising events, propositions, etc given in an order
which reflects their relationships in space-time. Narratives are the cognitive technology
which enables the consequences of alternative behaviours to be simulated mentally. In
societies, narratives transfer information between people. Abduction is an important form
of narratisation in which an explanatory hypothesis that is consistent with the known facts
is generated.
Inductive generalisation120 not only allows concepts to be drawn out of experience but
allows the construction of ‘super-concepts’ which embed concepts within concepts and
identify relationships between concepts. This ‘chunking’ process allows more complex
thinking within the constraints of short-term memory, eg an ethical principle can guide
thinking about the ethics of a particular case.
Bisociation is Arthur Koestler’s term for the process behind creativity, namely, intuitively
seeing a connection between concepts not hitherto recognised as being connected.121
Aaahh, lemon juice cures scurvy.
Associative memory is the capacity to recall, from a suite of stored concepts, the concept
most closely associated with some ‘sensory clue,’ eg, as in indexed memory, recognising
a whole pattern when presented with a fragment of that pattern.
Rationality is that orientation towards reality which attempts to weigh up the costs and
benefits of means and ends of an action before adopting it..
Deductive reasoning is a procedure for drawing conclusions (in the form of propositions)
from premises (statements, assumed to be true, about concepts) by applying a set of rules.
Deductive systems comprising a set of axioms and a set of rules for operating on those
axioms provide an extremely compact way of storing a large number of propositions.
This list of cognitive technologies and the ways in which they can support behaviourchoosing processes could be much extended (eg means-ends analysis, hypothesis testing,
binary discrimination) but our purpose is no more than to exemplify that modern
individuals have a range of thinking tools which apparently do not need consciousness.
We can turn now to a time when these skills were less developed.
In logic, induction is the process of generalising over multiple examples, commonly by
emphasising similarities and ignoring differences between them
121 Koestler Act of Creation
3000 BP-2000 BP New Religions, New Thinking, New Societies
Much of the millennium preceding the Common Era (ie, the first millennium BCE) was a
chaotic interregnum between the passing of the Bronze Age and its great empires and the
translation of the centre of civilisation westwards to Greece and Rome. Not that all was
destruction in the latter part of the second millennium; new cultures arose in in the Indian
Punjab (c. 3500 BP), the Chinese Hwang-Ho region (c. 3400 BP) and in the Aegean (c.
3100 BP).
In the early part of the first millennium BCE, disruptions to food production and trade
routes reduced energy supplies in many societies below levels needed to support
unproductive specialists as well as agricultural workers. Social structures were
necessarily simplified with many turning to marauding and migration to survive; others
returned to self-sufficient village life. Under stress, the theocracies which had guarded,
guided collective decision-making, and imposed social order on increasingly complex
societies for some thousands of years broke down, some slowly, some rapidly.
Notwithstanding, over the millennium agricultural production expanded rapidly (due not
a little to the use of the iron plough) and world population increased from c. 50 m to c.
170 m.
It was a time which saw major shifts from oral to literate cultures, from magic-based
polytheistic religions to monotheistic religions and in the nature of human consciousness
and human cognitive-linguistic abilities. Where the Neolithic period is characterised by
the emergence of material technologies and the Urban period by new social technologies,
the first millennium BCE was to be a time of great change in cognitive and
communicative technologies.
In what Karl Jaspers (1953) calls the ‘axial age’ of new religions, the period c. 2800 BP
to 2200 BP saw the emergence of Taoism and Confucianism in China, Buddhism and
Hinduism in India, monotheism in Iran and the Middle East (Zoroastriansm) and Greek
rationalism in Europe. Beneath their obvious differences all reflected an emerging ability
to think with the idea that each human is an independent entity with a faculty of choice in
line with their individual character, ie each possesses an ego. All shared a concern for
how to cope with the misery of life (oppression and disease), how to transcend personal
weaknesses and how to live in peace in a flawed world.122 Personal morality and
responsibility were becoming more central to religion in a world where behaviour was no
longer so tightly dictated by theocratic rulers; the ways in which the gods might react to
one’s actions became less troubling.
What was crystallising here was a trend which can be traced back to an animism in which
everything had its motivating self-interested spirit, a spirit which was often manipulable
by magical procedures. Next, with the early Neolithic perhaps, came a manifest
polytheism in which numerous gods (idols), including personal gods, were always near at
(Armstrong 2001)
hand, needing to be placated and directly consulted in what-to-do situations. In time, all
manifest polytheisms gave way to remote polytheisms (eg early Hebrews, Greeks,
Romans) in which gods were distant, less talkative and generally less interested in human
affairs.123 It can be suggested that the next shift, to monotheism (one god), was an
adaptation which, thinking of religion as an instrument of social control, had the virtue of
creating a single authority to be obeyed rather than many; especially where a single
priesthood had a monopoly on interpreting a single God’s will. Going further again, both
Buddhism and Greek rationalism began substituting the moral autonomy of the individual
for supernatural external authority as society’s way of imprinting behaviour supportive of
the existing social order.
The emergence of the modern mind can be seen most clearly in the flowering
[[??fluorescence?/]] of Greek thought, culminating by the sixth century BCE in a society
where people had acquired sufficient cognitive skills, sufficient vocabulary (including
the vocabulary of subjective consciousness) and sufficient memory (boosted by phonetic
writing) to debate individually and collectively, the nature of the world and society and
how these might be better managed For example, democracy was a social technology
made possible, at least in part, by the Greek recognition that people are individuals as
well as class members. Speculation was explicitly recognised and ardently pursued.
More generally, the classical and Alexandrian periods of Greek civilization, through their
contributions to language, politics, pedagogy, arts, science, and philosophy, laid the
foundations on which, eventually, the European Renaissance would be built. There is
bite in the aphorism that the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to
The Greek capacity for systematic thought equalled ours. They knew how to trial
candidate behaviours in the mind at low cost and how to bring disparate ideas into a
consistent harmony. They knew how to use premises to underpin an argument. They
were able to challenge the truth of comforting beliefs. Indeed, it was c.2430 BP that
Solon and others recognised that truth was something to be discovered, not revealed.124
[[wait on Solon =600BCE]]]
But societies are learning systems in which knowledge acquisition has to build on what
has gone before and the process is necessarily slow for a long time. In any case, the
Jaynes & Comprehensive Paradigm Shifts &
My Evolving Plausibility Attitudes Towards Jaynes' Theory On The Origins of
Consciousness jjs website accessed 25/03/07
Richard Singer, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Webster University in St. Louis, MO
Saul in the unconscious civilisation
knowledge and understanding the Greeks achieved was lost for hundreds of years
following their conquest by the Romans in 146 BCE.
Contribution of Writing to the Cognition-consciousness Revolution
Walter Ong, an early student of the differences between oral and literate cultures,
described writing as the most momentous of all human technological inventions, the
technology which has shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man.125
Writing systems developed and spread in two waves. The first, based on pictographic
forms, began in Sumer some 5500 BP and dispersed from there through Mesopotamia to
Egypt, Europe, India and China. Writing systems in the second wave, beginning in the
late Bronze Age, were alphabetic, meaning that they used one sign to represent one
sound. A good example is the Phoenician alphabetic system which gave rise to Hebrew,
Aramaic and early Greek; and then, via Greek, to Latin and Cyrillic. Around 2800 BP
the Greeks invented signs for vowel sounds, making theirs the first complete alphabet
with both consonants and vowels.
Writing systems are more than memory aids and more than pictorial depictions of things.
They accurately represent someone’s uttered or imagined words. Without the distortions
which plague memory, they allow the storing of information over long periods. But
writing is much more than a substitute for spoken language. Extending language
transmission from an oral-aural medium into a visual medium has had enormous impacts,
over time, on diverse aspects of cultural evolution, notably, cognitive capabilities, belief
systems, knowledge acquisition, inventiveness and social organisation:
As the Bronze Age progressed, and societies became more complex, writing was
increasingly used for practical purposes such as keeping records of transactions and
contracts; transmitting instructions from supervisors to workers; and providing
permanent, accessible public statements of proclaimed laws. In this context writing was a
technology which provided certainty as to what had been communicated and which
allowed communication across time and space.
It was towards the end of the Bronze Age that culturally-important stories and narratives
which, till then, could only be transmitted orally began to be written down, the first
perhaps being the Zoroastrian Vesta (c.1500 BCE). The oldest of the Indian Upanishads
has been dated to around the eighth century BCE---it is the philosophy of the Upanishads
which underpins Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In China Confucian writings date
from c.500 BCE. The first-written book of the Hebrew bible, Amos, is now dated at 750
Ong, W (19 ) Orality and Literacy
James Cohn (2007), The minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Evolution of Human
consciousness, (accessed Nov 1, 2007)
It is hard to see how the great religions could have spread and matured without such
sacred authoritative texts, unchallengeable as they were by the mindset of the time.
Because they record what was said by God or prophet or enlightened one, they have the
authority of the spoken voice, especially when read aloud. Think also of the importance
of the New Testament and the Koran in the following millennium. Certainly the Greeks
and Romans had no sacred or revealed texts of any stature and their religions withered.
Rather, texts, particularly for the Greeks, became vehicles for the elaboration of
philosophical and scientific inquiries and for the ‘fixing’ of foundation myths such as
‘Homer’s’ two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey (transcribed c. 2700-2650 BP).
While writing a narrative down freezes the words spoken and renders it available in
canonical form on demand, it does not wholly capture the experience of listening as the
owner of the narrative delivers it. Written words are always an abstraction from a total
situation which is more than verbal. Inflections, emotions, emphases etc are lost.
Particularly if a text is sacred, it cannot be adjusted to reflect a changing world and
becomes a source of debate over interpretation. Scientific, philosophical and instructional
texts are more open to correction.
It is interesting to speculate that it was only with the transcription of foundation myths
and the later realisation that the world was no longer as it was that the concept of
historical time entered the consciousness.of newly-literate societies. Mecea Eliade in
Cosmos and History suggested that the Hebrews, the first truly alphabetic people,
developed a sense of ‘one-way’ time---an accreting, non-repeating sequence of events
against a backdrop of cosmic cycles. Eliade’s bold hypothesis, known as the myth of the
eternal return, is that preliterate people inhabit a cyclical time wherein, they believe, their
periodic ritual reconstructions of mythic events actually recreate (reactualise) those
events and return the world to its beginnings.
What of the contribution of writing to the evolution of cognitive capabilities and the
buildup of collective knowledge? First, multiple individuals can learn from the writers of
texts (ie, extended discussions) even if such are distant or dead. In principle that can also
happen in an oral culture (via teachers) but the scale is likely to be different. Given
multiple copies of texts and a core of people able to read (libraries were invented in the
late first millennium), more people will be holding more knowledge in common in a
literate society than in an oral society of the same size. This in turn will mean more
people primed to contribute, through learning, to the creation of further knowledge.
Texts themselves provide a stable starting point for ongoing verbal dialogue about their
truth or about how the thinking they embody might be extended. [[[The critical
innovation was the simple habit of recording speculative ideas—that is, of externalizing
the process of oral commentary on events.]]]] But a written text has several advantages
over verbal discourse as a means of evaluating and upgrading an argument or exposition.
Improving a written text can be treated as an iterative task, reviewing and revising one’s
previous thoughts. Selectively rereading what you have written reloads your working
memory, sometimes in novel ways. Rewriting involves a dialectical process in which
product and process, content and the tacit rules for writing persuasively and logically,
have to be constantly harmonised. Reasons have to be crafted and conclusions
Against this, the tacit rules of spoken discourse are much looser, a game of verbal pingpong which can easily wander. It is much easier to get away with sloppy thinking in
discussion than on paper. On balance, you are more likely to ‘know what you think’
when you see what you have written than when you listen to what you say!
Writing, being slower than talking, offers more opportunities to be creative, to reflect, to
generalise , to abstract, to integrate ideas. It encourages introspection, including the push
to find words to capture the emotions which are expressed otherwise through gesture,
mien etc when speaking. Metaphor is particularly important as a technique for
understanding, exploring, capturing and, eventually, naming fuzzy feelings and values.127
And insofar as writing gradually evolved syntactical structures capable of expressing
metaphors, it may have played a pivotal role in the invention and experiencing of
consciousness and selfhood.
Against these positives, the difficulties of using and learning from early texts need to be
kept in mind. In Plato’s time a library’s documents were stored in unlabelled jars; there
were no spaces between words, sentences or paragraphs and no punctuation marks; texts
usually had no contents listing and no pages.
[[idea that writing helped kill off the bicameral mind because introduced the idea that
here might be more than one reason for doing something Ka vs stele ]]]]] writing
allowed government by law, not by by individual judgement each time
Stages in the Evolution of Consciousness-cognition
Any attempt to overview the evolutionary development of consciousness-cognition
cannot be other than highly speculative, even into the period when written records begin.
The value of attempting such though is that it might suggest [[features and]] trends in that
process which are still operative and hence part of understanding social and cultural
evolution today. [[[Here we will briefly recapitulate three plausible earlier stages in the
evolution of consciousness-cognition before coming to the revolution that we are
claiming for the first millennium BCE. These are a pre-verbal stage, a syntactic language
stage and a ??bicameral ??stage
AN Whitehead notes the difficulties Plato, a metaphysician of genius, had in making
language express anything beyond the familiarities of everyday life and goes on to say
that it is misleading to study the history of ideas without constant remembranceof the
struggle of novel thought with the obtuseness of language. (Adventures of Ideas p120)
In fact there is one cognitive operation, an inductive learning operation, which, at least
since the first hominids, underlies all expansions in the range of entities of which the
brain can become aware. From the early Pleistocene, the hominid brain has been learning
to abstract recurring similarities and patterns---called percepts and concepts---from a
kaleidoscopic flux of input stimuli and store representations of these in memory.128 From
there these internalised representations have been available as templates (together with
links to action schemata and emotional tags) against which new experiences can be tested
for conformity. Francis Heylighen (1991 p5) suggests that the emergence of just one
further cognitive operation, the capacity to recombine concepts, free of their original
context, in a more-or-less controlled way, allows all the typical characteristics of human
intelligence to be explained.129
What we have here is an evolutionary development under which the brain comes to learn
to subdivide, and further subdivide, stimulatory experiences into categories and react
differently (ie initiate a different motor response) according to which category is being
experienced. One way of interpreting this is to view the brain as extracting more and
more information from the environment over evolutionary time. A complementary
perspective is to see the brain as an adaptation which protects the individual from being
overwhelmed by comprehensive awareness of everything she/he has known in the past
and could be aware of now in the present, ie the brain acts as a reducing valve which, in
principle, leaves the individual with the information relevant to hir purpose of the
moment.130 [[[[[[[[ insight : oral cultures can only accumulate so much knowledge, nonverbal cultures even less ..our problem nowadays is that we can accumulate lots of
knowledge but are limited in our ability to bring that knowledge to bear on solving our
what-to-do problems ]]]]
The pre-verbal mind
Under several descriptive names, including participatory consciousness, a typhonic state,
an archaic state, mind-at-large, a mystic state, and a phantasmic state, empathetic writers
have tried to evoke the mental experiences of early humans still equipped with only a
small number of percepts.131 One interesting metaphor is that such a person’s
experiences might have been like those of someone who has taken mescalin or a
What is stored in long-term memory may well be procedures or algorithms rather than
direct mappings between the flux of stimuli and what is stored. For example, an object is
recognised as an X if the sensory input it generates produces the result X when passed
through a set of sieving rules (see goertzel chapter 6 The Ecosystem of Ideas )
129 Heylighen F (1991) Cognitive levels of evolution: from pre-rational to meta rational, in
The Cybernetics of Complex systems-Self-organisation, evolution and social change F.Geyer
(ed) Intersystems, Salinas, Ca 75-9. Heylighen points out that ‘legitimate’ associations
conform to (are controlled by) learned rules based on experience, eg syntactic rules, cultural
rules, selection rules, historical rules.
130 CD Broad quoted by Huxley Cecy thesis p24??
131 Scaruffi Lazlo and Wilber and Berman Levy-Bruhl (L-B =mysticism)
comparable hallucinogen which suppresses the higher control areas of the brain, ie being
a habiline would have been like being in a world of vivid experience where nothing is
easily recognisable. [[The whole of the world is seen as unity, as a single rich live entity”
(Maslow, 1968, p. 88).]] Akin to the reports of modern mystics, there might have been a
sense of a floating self, immersed in a kaleidoscopic world. This self would not have had
a sense of agency, of consciousness such as we experience, but would have been a ‘body
self’, an image of oneself in terms of joint, muscle and visceral awareness. The implicit
suggestion here is that a loose percept of a body self is one of the first ‘cleavages’ the
brain learned to make through the world outside itself, an early step in a still-ongoing
internalisation (inner modelling) of the external world.
As discussed in Chapter 6, behaviour at this time would largely have been governed by
instinctive and affective responses, not cognitive ones. Behaviours which produced
positive emotions or ameliorated negative ones would have quickly become habitual, and,
through mimesis, spread throughout the social group, ie have become customs.
Custom not only makes individual behaviour predictable, it results in all individuals
having a similar behavioural repertoire---like ‘cells’ in a ‘superorganism.’ And, for most
of the Pleistocene, it would have been through averbal custom that societies co-ordinated
themselves. Societies with a sufficiently diverse repertoire of customary responses to
particular environmental contingencies would have enhanced survival prospects. In the
longer term, the repertoire of customary responses in those societies that survived must
have evolved in parallel with environmental trends such as declining temperatures.
In parallel with the evolution of custom, the Pleistocene would have seen slow growth in
simple non-verbal language (see Chapter 6). We can suppose an expansion in each
group’s common stock of concrete (not abstract) percepts, each sculpted from reoccurring emotionally-charged episodic experiences. And we can further suppose the
emergence of associative learning, ie a capacity to associate, in memory and in recall,
percepts previously encountered together in recurring episodic experiences,132 for
example, dead bodies and dry waterholes (or would such constructs be outside the scope
of non-verbal language?). In terms of cognitive skills such associative learning is a
precursor to causal thinking.
In time some percepts would have separated from their original contexts and associations
and come to be associated with ‘context-free’ non-verbal signs, earlier called mimes.
This would set the stage for the development of syntactic language--- strings of mimes
assembled according to rules---capable of communicating simple stories. Every
language, verbal or non-verbal, is a collective functional model of reality, one that stores
the experience of preceding generations and one on whose refinement all members of
The physiological basis for associative learning is that a synaptic connection which is used
often will increase its strength such that the probability that it will be used again increases.
Ultimately, associative learning is the only sort of learning there is.
society are working. Imagine the value of an elder’s story which told of the existence of
a place of refuge from drought. Or is that asking too much of non-verbal language?
Probably yes, but even as it was reaching its modest developmental limits, towards the
end of the Pleistocene, non-verbal communication was creating a template on which oral
language could be built. That is, in crude form, percepts, signs (symbols) for percepts
and syntax were now in place.
The syntactic mind
Wide limits, from 200 kya to 70 kya, bound the various suggestions for the time of
emergence of oral protolanguages.133 Here we will bypass the various origin hypotheses
and take up the story of cognition-consciousness at the time of the Upper Paleolithic
cultural revolution, some 40 kya, when we can be fairly confident that syntactic language
(sentences) had become a well-established communicative technology, at least in ‘here
and now’ situations.
Chapter 6 noted the various ways in which the advent of structured speech might have
led to improvements in thinking, faster accumulation of collectively-held information and
a reinforcing of the tribal mode of social organisation. As language developed, each new
group of words created, literally, new perceptions and attentions, ie language was not just
a tool for communication but another ‘organ’ of perception, [[as valid as the senses and]]]
able to direct and hold attention on a particular task. Perhaps the the Upper Paleolithic
revolution, with its explosion of advanced stone artefacts, reflects the coevolution of
material and cognitive-communicative technologies.
The period between the Upper Paleolithic revolution and the Neolithic revolution
(15kya), while climatically difficult, saw the persistence of the hunter-gatherer group or
tribe as the ubiquitous form of social organisation. Terms such as the magic mind, the
mythic mind, the membership mind, the group mind and the tribal mind have been used
when speculating on aspects of the mentality and social psychology of these late huntergatherers.134 These various terms are drawing attention, first, to the sameness of
individual minds within Upper Paleolithic tribal cultures and, second, to these people’s
changing models of the world and their place in it.
Relative to syntactic language, protolanguage is characterised by a form of expression
in which words are merely grouped in short utterances, with no grammatical support. Its
are: no grammatical words, no long-range dependency within the sentence, no inflection,
no consistent order. Search engines use protolanguage.
Wilber….?? Mind is synonymous with ‘the brain’s mental operations.’
As is still true today, language could now be used to describe the world to children until
they were capable of perceiving the world as described. Under this view, reality is only a
description which is shared, largely unconsciously, with those who use the same
language. Furthermore, from the perspective of social psychology, a shared language is a
form of social control, again largely unconscious. That is, once an individual responds to
a description of reality, hir behaviour is already circumscribed by that description.135
Linguistic formulae for norms, customs, taboos etc would have been similarly transmitted
and internalised. For example, a child’s memory of being verbally instructed by its
parents would have functioned as a primitive conscience or superego, recalling past
instructions, by association, in similar situations. Socialisation through language thus
became the main instrument for keeping individual behaviour within functional limits.
As a group’s culture, its learned behaviours and shared ideas, became richer and more
complex than in pre-verbal days, spoken language woud have been essential to
reproducing/ maintaining that culture.
But, apart from episodic memories, there would have been little qualifying as personal in
the minds of tribal members. The vocabulary which would allow the modelling and
awareness of one’s inner feelings and motivations or the minds of others had not yet been
invented. Tribal societies were not made up of people who, having recognised
themselves as individuals, then identified with the group. Rather, over the Upper
Paleolithic, concepts and words (eg one’s name?) appeared which allowed the individual
to begin to split out from the concept of the group, a dim conception of a ‘mental’ self, ie
something additional to a ‘body’ self.
As was discussed in Chapter 6, there is a variety of evidence that the Upper Paleolithic
was the period when animistic, magical and mythical thinking emerged and flourished.
Cognitive tools for questioning the reality of this primitive thinking, based as it was on
inappropriate metaphor, did not yet exist. The capacity for causal thinking which was
proving useful enough in everyday tasks, just did not have access to sufficient abstract
concepts to provide naturalistic explanations for natural processes.
Nevertheless, as noted earlier, primitive thinking did serve various functions such as
providing all the tribe’s members with a common set of meanings, explanations and
beliefs about the world. And it provided some sense of psychic security and meaning in
a capricious and mysterious world for what we would see as the child-like egos of the
time. For example, misfortunes and calamities could be explained as part of an
intelligible order and, by following customary rules, be warded off to some extent
(Habermas, 1976:98). Even in the absence of abstract principles, myths and stories were
‘case studies’ which provided role models and examples for guiding behaviour. Of
course, it would only be with difficulty that such guidelines could be updated to reflect
changed conditions.
Wilber p423
These then were the oral cultures which allowed hunter-gatherers to survive the rigours of
the last ice age. We have every reason to believe that spoken language, the master
technology, played a central role in driving the evolution of the material, social, cognitive
and communicative technologies which collectively define cultural evolution
The [early] post-glacial [[[but still bicameral]]??]]mind
As described above, the period from the end of the last ice age (say 15 kya) till the end of
the Bronze Age (say 1000 BCE) was a period of dramatic socio-cultural response to
dramatic climatic and ecological change. While the period saw numerous interdependent
innovations within and between the categories of material, social, communicative and
cognitive technologies, it is changes in food production technologies and parallel
facilitating changes in social organisation-social control technologies which stand out. In
a sentence, these core changes were from hunter-gatherer societies to, first, Neolithic
farming villages and then to empires based on broad-scale irrigated agriculture.
Looking back, we can see how creating, refining and combining technologies allowed
post-glacial societies and groups within societies to make adaptations which, at least for a
time, improved the survival and wellbeing prospects of the innovators. In line with
mounting archaeological evidence, one can imagine plausible sequences of small steps by
which individual technologies might have entered, left or matured within the technology
pool-technology mix. And as the technology-mix being used ebbed and flowed, various
emergent and collective properties of the society would have responded, entities such as
energy throughput, social character, class structure, food security, demographic structure,
accumulated knowledge etc. Thus, a process of cultural evolution similar (albeit faster)
to that described for tribal societies in chapter 6, one based on the selective retention of
exploratory behaviours in what-to-do situations, can be presumed to have continued
through the Neolithic and urban revolutions.
While the post-glacial mind was confronted with managing ever-bigger groups of people
in a growing range of interdependent roles, there is little to suggest a system-shift in
people’s basic mental skills such as their ability to model reality, their learning skills,
their memory skills and their capacity to remain focused on a task. Rather, it was the
enhanced contents of the post-glacial mind, not its raw capabilities, which differentiated
it from the tribal mind of the hunter-gatherer. Under ‘contents’ we can include
knowledge of norms, taboos, beliefs, customs, facts, vocabulary, causation, myths,
recipes, rituals, values and traditions. That said, these were oral cultures which depended
critically, and in diverse ways, on language to make a system of new and more complex
farming and social management technologies work and keep working.
Consider the place of language in ensuring that individuals learned and reliably filled the
roles assigned to them by tradition. We can assume that post-glacial people were still
signal-bound or reflexive, ie they responded minute-by-minute to cues from their
environment, including a verbal environment characterised by commands and assertions
(plus, possibly, questions) uttered by other group members.
An important factor in the primary socialisation of children would have been learning to
obey routine parental commands as they absorbed and internalised the group’s stock of
shared knowledge. As discussed by Castro and Toro (2004), humans, at some point,
must have learned to express disinterested approval and disapproval of childish attempts
to imitate adult behaviours and hence to guide successive improvements. In play, the
child could verbalise and practise responding to commands. Once parents had acquired
the capacity to express approval or disapproval of children’s behaviour, it would lead to
the children associating positive or negative feelings with memories of performing those
behaviours, and with the words by which approval/disapproval was conveyed. This, in
turn, would lead people to behave, depending on context, in ways which they knew, from
memory, would generate positive feelings or avoid negative feelings. In contrast to other
primates, episodic memories could be triggered in human learned words,
nothing more. As well as this, emotionally charged words of approval/disapproval
would, in time, become decoupled from the particular learning situation while still
retaining their ability to guide future responses to those words, be they overt or covert.
Here could be the mechanism by which a modern human’s limbic system learns to accept
or reject verbally proposed behaviours. [[[..acquires the thought-feeling couplets against
which a proposed behaviour will be evaluated
Conrad Waddington interpreted human docility, our tendency to accept authority, as an
adaptive response by a neotenous species to the need for its young to be teachable. 136
But insofar as the habit of obedience to an authoritative voice carries over to adulthood, it
becomes a pre-adaptation for the social technology of leadership (eg chiefs, big men,
elders), a technology based on giving verbal commands to people within earshot.
Leadership is a social technology which co-ordinates the group’s behaviour by
considering only the options perceived by the leader in what-to-do situations.
Presumably, it evolved as a successful balance between the need for timeliness in
decision-making and the need to consider a sufficient variety of candidate responses to
novel situations.
Nevertheless, as the food production system was transformed and complexified, and as
communities grew larger, face-to-face leadership in non-routine, and hence stressful,
situations would have become more difficult. Even for routine tasks, in the absence of the
leader signal-bound workers would need frequent cueing. For example, custom, ritual
and habit would have each played a part in maintaining a work party’s attention to a task.
Remembering and obeying a leader’s commands in his (?) absence would have been
difficult in the face of poor impulse control and a limited ability to self-trigger the recall
of instructions from memory in the form of either mimetic imagination or verbal
symbols. People would have been willing to obey but not very good at it! Leaders
themselves would have had no special capacity for formulating behavioural plans and
remaining focused on their implementation.
Waddington, C. H (1960). The ethical animal. London : George Allen & Unwin
Despite these problems, as people’s vocabularies grew and their verbal models of
practical realities improved, we can postulate that their self-cueing abilities also
improved. The self-cueing process in post-glacial people would necessarily have been
similar in some ways to the consciousness-generating process outlined earlier for
contemporary humans. In particular, in what-to-do situations the off-line speech-thought
system generates a sequence of schematic behavioural options until one appears which,
after being returned to the awareness system, is ‘passed’ by the limbic system and then
implemented. We can imagine though, in contrast to modern self-aware minds, only a
small range of customary, formulaic responses would ever be available for such
However, if Julian Jaynes, Bruno Snell, Mary Clark, Wilber Whyte 137 and others are
right, post-glacial peoples, at least until the first millennium BCE, did not have a strong
enough sense of self, or sufficient vocabulary, to recognise that thoughts they were
becoming aware of were self-authored. Rather, they experienced those thoughts, Jaynes
argues, as words spoken aloud by an authority figure, ie as what we would call an
auditory hallucination.138 And they obeyed (or believed, as the case may be).
To appreciate the next part of this plausible scenario (and that is all it is), recall that early
post-glacial peoples were animists who believed that every material entity was alive and
able to act with purpose. So, while an authoritative voice might, in the first instance, be
(mis)attributed to a living leader, it could equally be (mis)attributed to the corpse or
remains of a dead leader. Indeed, given that living leaders grew up to have the same
dependence on authority as their followers, we can readily imagine that such might
attribute their cueing voices to dead predecessors. From there, it is a small step to
visiting the remains of one’s dead predecessor to hear his advice and commands
concerning what-to-do situations. These pronouncements could then be relayed, with
attribution, to one’s followers. The elasticity of magical thinking would have further
allowed statues or other symbols of the dead leader to become cues for hearing the dead
leader’s voice. Indeed, each individual could have their own personal cueing symbol; not
that it was a symbol to them---it was the real thing!
And so begins eight thousand years of unquestioned belief in the direct participation of
‘dead’ authority figures in the management of post-glacial societies. As ‘dead’ leaders
receded into the past, one can imagine their being transformed into, first, legendary
heroes, and then into what we would think of as gods. Depending on the particular
society, the living leader might be seen as the mouthpiece of the gods or, using magical
reasoning, a god himself. Jaynes (p143) suggests that an eleven thousand year old
Snell B Origins of the Greek Mind
Jaynes likens this experience to that of contemporary schizophrenics while Luria’s
(1961,1979) research on contemporary children posits that a child is at first instructed to do
various tasks by an adult, then learns to give him/herself linguistic commands. These selfinstructions are at first uttered aloud and then gradually take the form of internal covert
propped-up skeleton found in a tomb in the Levantine village of Eynan might have been
an early god-king.
As a social technology for accurately guiding the individual’s contribution to society,
gods have several advantages over living leaders. Their repertoire of injunctions, their
leadership styles are free to settle down over time, be objectified, and provide a baseline
of stable guidance during the uncertainties of transition between living leaders. Their
authority can be cumulatively strengthened over generations through the development of
worship rituals, rites and ceremonies. Of course, for most of the reign (metaphor) of the
post-glacial mind, at least in closed self-sufficient societies, there would have been little
questioning of divine authority. People were docile, we have suggested. Despite having
language, they, like every other animal, had no concepts of introspection, deception, evil,
justice, guilt, objective space-time. They had no sense of the future and no memories as
we know them. These are all abstract concepts which we understand through metaphor;
and the technology of expanding language through the use of metaphor had not as yet
been invented.
As the climatically-favourable Holocene continued and farming technologies continued
to evolve to exploit the opportunities entailed therein, agricultural systems delivered food
surpluses sufficient to support a priestly class, particularly after Eurasia’s great irrigation
civilisations grew out of village agriculture. While the respected historian, William
McNeill, dubs these first priests ‘macro-parasites,’ it is surely more complex than that.
Priests were no more reflectively aware than the workers they organised on behalf of a
leader (a king say) and one or more gods. The priesthood can be seen as a managerial
class which, plausibly, co-evolved with the increasingly complex management tasks
associated with population growth, urbanisation and expanding irrigation systems. Over
millennia gods too proliferated and specialised in cueing different types of decisionmaking, eg personal gods. It would seem that cultural evolution had produced a set of
technological themes which, for a long time and in many places, would prove able to
adapt to or cope with both slow complexification and modest environmental variation.
Communication by writing was the most promising technological response to
complexification, albeit slow to spread. And the best available social technology, in
times of drought or other environmental challenges, was placating or pleading with one’s
anthropomorphised gods.
That is, it was the best until someone invented the more practical idea of stealing grain
from another village’s granaries. Such marauding inevitably spread and spawned the
widespread adoption of defensive technologies, including fortified villages and cities and
specialist warriors. The seeds of the 20th century’s wars were being sown. When the
idea of stealing grain was extended to stealing people to be slave labourers, the
technologies of coercion began to assume an increasingly important role within societies.
Slaves knew nothing of local language and customary behaviours, and could not really be
re-socialised into a compliant workforce. It was easier to extract their labour using
physical coercion.
Increasingly throughout the transition from villages to city states, militaristic
management based on maintaining standing armies was now complementing theocratic
management. Military conquest (stealing the neighbours’ land) and empire–building
(setting up tribute states) became recognised social technologies for improving and
maintaining a society’s survival prospects. For example, Hammurabi, steward-king to
the Babylonian god Marduk from 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE, formed the city states of
Mesopotamia into an empire and held them together, in considerable part through his use
of written proclamations and letters of instruction.
And now the trap began to close. It transpired that the militaristic-theocratic states and
empires that had spread across Eurasia by the middle Bronze Age were in ever-present
danger of collapsing, both individually and, domino-style, collectively. Jaynes (p 195)
talks about the built-in periodicity of such societies, ie their propensity to collapse at
intervals back to less energetic tribal forms. And, indeed, around 2300 BCE [[[???
Peiser??]] a number of major civilisations did collapse. [[It would not be the last time.]]
The source problem here was that the mix of material, social, communicative and
cognitive technologies was changing only slowly and agricultural output was no longer
growing strongly. Trade was increasing but was still a minor activity. Population growth
continued, providing the state/ empire with more warriors and serfs but lowering
surpluses per head. This left increasingly complex societies increasingly vulnerable to
climatic variability, natural disasters and the disruptive effects of military campaigns and
[[paragraph is a repetition of introduction---rewrite] Joseph Tainter (2000), one of the
few archaeologists to have made a comparative study of collapsed societies, concludes
that adding new management operations is a sound way of addressing newly perceived
problems. At first the strategy works. For example, agricultural production increases
through more intensive farming methods, an emerging bureaucracy co-ordinates
production and distribution competently, expanding trade brings wealth. However, as the
less costly solutions to society’s problems are exhausted, it becomes imperative that new
organisational and economic answers be found, even though these may well be
decreasingly cost-effective. One reason for that is that as new components are added to a
system, the number of inter-component linkages that have to be managed tends to
increase geometrically rather than linearly. Finally, at some point the costs of additional
reorganisation exceed the benefits. Tainter’s insight is that, as a strategy for solving a
society’s problems, complexification is often successful in the short term but, in the long
term, may well increase that society’s vulnerability to collapse.139
Western civilization has avoided this fate so far, he says and we will discuss presently,
through a combination of luck and ingenuity which has allowed complexification to
Much of the increasing complexity which Bronze Age societies had to manage was the
result of interactions between societies, particularly war, trade and forced migration. To
quote Ernest Gellner (p160), violence which in tribal and village times had been
‘contingent and optional,’ had now become ‘pervasive, mandatory and normative.’
Individual societies were being selected to survive on the basis of their military ‘fitness’
but, for Bronze Age society as a whole, war was a ‘social trap,’ an extraordinarily costly
and unproductive way of allocating resources. And it could not be avoided. In the
absence of any overarching institution for internalising the external costs of war, every
state had to join its local arms race to have any prospect of survival. Given that bigger
societies tend to be ‘fitter’ militarily, the Bronze Age world was already on a growth
treadmill. How familiar all this sounds.
Religion was a second major source of increasing complexification. Religious
observances and practices (including the building of temples and monuments), consumed
ever-more resources in most Bronze Age societies. The adaptive value of this
development is not immediately clear to modern eyes. It seems unlikely that the gods
needed more authority over what were docile people who believed and did what they
were told. Perhaps the cultural evolution of the priesthood had become decoupled from
the cultural evolution of the mass of people? But there is nothing to suggest that these
changes were primarily for the benefit of the priesthood. There was as yet no recognition
of the idea of disparate class interests, even though, in practice, the military and the
priesthood constituted a dominant minority. More plausible is the idea that because
religious guidance of these societies was apparently no longer solving their problems
adequately, they turned to making greater efforts to communicate with their gods.
But things got worse rather than better. Around the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, as
Jaynes interprets the historical record, the various hallucinated voices (ie, misattributed
thoughts) became confused, contradictory, and ultimately counterproductive. They no
longer provided relevant directions in what-to-do situations. This should not surprise us.
The vocabulary available for expressing instructions was limited and descriptive-only.
So, faced with novel, complex situations, only simple, and likely irrelevant, stock
responses could be generated. A related idea here is that the increasing use of written
instructions which had to be read out loud before being acted on might have moved the
post-glacial mind closer to recognising that verbal instructions can be self-authored and
not necessarily divine.
While Jaynes argues convincingly from the historical record that the ‘voices of the gods’
did indeed fade in light of these failures, it is not clear how thoughts were processed
thereafter, at least not till the appearance of the self-aware mind some 500 years later. In
the interim, there were several types of technological responses to the loss of direct divine
guidance. One was to seek out oracles and prophets, people who retained a capacity to
hear divine instructions and to answer questions on behalf of the gods. Thus, oracles (eg
Delphi) remained important in Greece for another thousand years. Another approach to
improving communications was to pray to one’s departed gods through new
intermediaries such as angels. Then there were techniques based on inferring divine
intentions from indirect evidence. These included choosing between alternative scenarios
by casting lots, by divination and by reading auguries and omens. While misguided, such
inferential methods reflected an expanding awareness of the concepts of both choice and
[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[???Both left and right hemispheres of the human brain
are able to understand language, while normally only
the left can produce speech. However, there is some
vestigial functioning of the right-hemisphere Wernicke’s
area which could explain the ‘voices of the gods’. If the
two hemispheres under certain conditions are able to
act almost as independent persons, their relationship
would correspond to that of the man-god relationships of bicameral times.?? Jaynes
newsletter ]]… newsletter 2 Jaynes hypothesised a bicameral process of brain
functioning. He asserts that about 3000 years ago there was a left brain/right brain split
that had until that time, made the right brain act as ‘god’ to the left brain, which would
hear and obey. The emanations from the right hemisphere would produce visual and
auditory hallucinations that were powerful enough for the left hemisphere (and the human
being as well) to follow. ]].. furthermore, he regarded this mentality of the era of the Iliad
as the bicameral mind. By this term he is referring to a two-chambered mental process by
which there was ‘a decision-making part and a follower part’. Specifically, hearing the
inner voice involves a region of the right hemisphere that corresponds with Wernicke’s
area in the left hemisphere , which is implicated in receptive communicaton]]]]
The self-aware mind
Having now made an effort to understand cognition-consciousness in contemporary
humans and to recapitulate several stages in the evolution of the human mind, we have a
framework within which to better understand the revolution in cognition-consciousness
that occurred in various parts of Eurasia, most spectacularly in Greece in the first
millennium BCE.
Under the interpretation offered here, this is the millennium in which humans started to
deliberately think metaphorically. The adoption of that one cognitive technology was the
‘big bang’ which projected the human mind into a whole new universe, metaphorically
speaking. More explicitly, thinking metaphorically is a tool which can rapidly extend the
range of behavioural options a person might consider in what-to-do situations, and,
equally importantly, it is a tool which can extend, enrich and selectively focus meaning
(perceptions of relationships between entities). Consider a simple example. “We will
attack the Trojans,” is a concrete expression of intention, but “We will attack the Trojans
like a crab catches fish.” is a metaphor which makes the idea of a pincer movement
readily and immediately understandable; or, “We will attack the Trojans like a scorpion
out of its nest.” But being like a scorpion entails much more than launching a stinging
attack from a hiding place (wooden horse!). It means being willing to feint, to hold your
weapons high, to fight to the death and so on. As George Lakoff says, metaphors make
sense of our experience; they provide coherent structure, highlighting some things and
hiding others.140 If a metaphor ‘passes’ emotionally, it has the potential to provide a
variety of options for understanding and acting, even as it constrains that variety to a
manageable level.
Even more powerfully, the act of changing from one metaphor to another changes one’s
working mental model of a what-to-do situation, e.g. from thinking ‘crab’ to thinking
‘scorpion.’ Metaphors make connections between different domains of discourse and
what is being suggested here is that during the first millennium BCE people learned to
generate metaphorical thoughts in a richer and more controlled way than hitherto. In part
this may have been a reflection of an enlarging vocabulary and a densifying network of
neural associations between concepts-percepts. On that particular point, the theory of
graphs suggests that as more and more contingent links (associations) appear between the
words in a lexicon, there will come a point where a few more links dramatically increase
the probability of there being a chain of links between any two words.141
Believing that a metaphor is valid as a basis for understanding or action is an act of faith,
something which can't be proven; but then so is any belief in any causal relationship. We
can imagine that trial and error experience in using metaphors would have led to various
pragmatic rules for narrowing the range of metaphorical associations thought to be worth
exploring in various situations: For example, when A is likened to B, both A and B are
normally the same part of speech, eg both nouns. Metaphors with negative emotional
loadings stand to be rejected. As in the ‘attack’ metaphor above, candidate metaphors
need to be consonant with goals and values. And then there will be various culturespecific guidelines based on taboos, memes, traditions etc which favour rejection or
favour further consideration of metaphors with particular attributes.142 Within the options
remaining after such pruning and pre-judging, metaphors which emerge for further
consideration are thereafter, for practical purposes, randomly selected---a process
reminiscent of gene mutation. And the genetic metaphor leads to the idea that if the rate
of cultural evolution is lagging the rate of environmental change, cultural evolution can
be speeded up by generating more metaphors around the problem issues. Conversely,
some metaphors get cemented into belief systems as truths which can only be changed
with great difficulty over a long period.
Lakoff, G and Johnson, M Metaphors We Live By p??
142 Heylighen 1991 cognitive levels of evolution paper
Where did metaphorical thinking come from? Not out of nowhere. It can be viewed as a
refinement of Frazer’s two laws of magic, introduced in chapter 6 as the law of similarity
and the law of contagion. Indeed Robin Fox suggests that, in contemporary language, the
law of contagion could be rewritten as the law of metonymy and the law of similarity as
the law of metaphor.143
Not quite perhaps. A metaphor is a type of assertion: If A resembles B in some way,
structurally or functionally, then it might resemble B in other ways. However, metaphors
do not go as far as the law of similarity which postulates parallel and remote causation
That is metaphors do not claim, as sympathetic magic does, that operations on A alone
have effects on both A and B and those effects are similar; the effects on B resemble the
effects on A. For example, breaking the arm of a voodoo doll, A, one representing and
resembling person B, magically causes the breaking of B’s arm. The corresponding
metaphorical thought might be that if person B is like a straw doll, then their arm might
be easily broken.
Metaphorical understanding of mental experiences
Learning to use metaphorical thinking culminated in its extension to understanding
mental experiences.144 Thus, as noted earlier, Julian Jaynes suggested that a human
organism’s mental experiences can be understood and talked about by thinking of them as
being like the natural experiences of a bodily organism in the real world. Natural
experiences include direct body experiences and interactions with both the physical
environment and with other people.145 And that is what humans learned to do. People
moved from treating imagined events as real events to treating imagined events as being
like real events. They learned to verbalise and share their thoughts by (partly) expressing
those thoughts with the help of this ‘natural experiences’ metaphor. Nowadays we talk so
readily about our mental experiences that it is difficult for us to see how the narratives we
produce are based on understanding mental experiences as being like physical
experiences such as looking, listening etc.; and that people had to learn to describe their
mental acts and experiences. [[Language had begun to split into one frame of reference
Robin Fox: The challenge of anthropology, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswisk,
N.J., USA, and London, UK, p173 metonymy (treating parts as wholes; eg counting
‘heads’, not people)
The property of being intentional, of having an intentional object, is the feature which
distinguishes mental/psychical phenomena from physical phenomena (objects). Every
mental act is directed at or contains an object — the so-called intentional object. Every
belief, desire, etc. has an object to which it refers. Physical phenomena lack
intentionality altogether (Wikipedia, Accessed 10 June2007).
Lakoff (p117)
pertaining to publicly observable physical things and one pertaining to privately
knowable mental things.]]
Jaynes called the metaphorical entity which participates in the bodily organism’s stream
of imaginings Analogue I. We might equally, and more briefly, call it Ego-I although ego
is a more contentious term. In the real world, the word ‘I’ is most simply thought of as
the name which a bodily organism gives to that same bodily organism when conversing.
Just as a physical person does things in the real world (moving around, arranging objects,
looking, listening, etc), the metaphorical I does analogous things, has analogous
experiences, in an analogue of the real world which Jaynes calls mind-space. As well as
actively doing things in mind space, Ego-I participates passively in the body’s mental
experiences, eg being spoken to as well as speaking. Thus Ego-I plays more than one
sort of role.
So, if I have a mental experience in which I imagine I am patting my dog, that experience
is very like, is analogous to, a real world experience in which I am watching someone
who looks like me patting a dog that looks like my dog. I report that Ego-I looked into
mind-space (introspected) and saw a visual image of a ‘metaphorical me’ patting a dog
like mine. Or, more shortly, I report that I imagined patting my dog. Thus, ‘seeing in the
real world’ is a metaphorical explanation of ‘seeing in mind-space.’
What about the mental experience of imagining syntactic speech without, say, any
accompanying visual images or auditory hallucinations? You could interpret that
experience as being like a real world experience in which someone talks to you or,
alternatively, you are talking to someone. Perhaps the best metaphor for understanding
the experiencing of inner speech is the real world experience of talking aloud to oneself ?
If so, the experiencing of inner speech is like observing an intrapersonal dialogue in
mind-space. Call it Ego-I One talking to Ego-I Two. Now you can explain to someone
that you had imagined you were talking to yourself and you said “X.” Or, more shortly,
as the shared metaphor shrunk with familiarity, “I was thinking ‘X.’ “ Other words for
directed mental experiences and mental acts---knowing, believing, planning, speculating
etc---began to appear in texts of the 1st millennium BCE. In the same period, words for
feelings and emotions, based on the bodily changes associated with these mental states,
come into use. We can conclude that the scope of the consciousness experience was
being expanded.
Metaphorical understanding of consciousness and selfhood
We can draw on these ideas to suggest how a growing metaphorical understanding of
mental experiences opened the way for the emergence of consciousness and selfhood. As
noted, consciousness is here understood to mean the implementing of an ability to
observe, and to know that one is observing, some of the operations of one's own
(autonomous) mind. It is a process of listening to (a metaphor) oneself thinking, and
being aware that one is doing so, and that the thoughts being listened to are one’s own, ie
are self-authored.
If you accept this somewhat-constrained (but unmuddled) definition of what
consciousness is, then you cannot be conscious unless you can say, or imagine saying, “I
was thinking ‘X.’ “ Hence, consciousness could not exist before people had the
vocabulary to say “I was thinking ‘X.’ “ As Wittgenstein said ‘The limits of my language
mean the limits of my world’146 What happened at the emergence of consciousness was
not that inner speech was new but that the stream of inner speech generated by the left
hemisphere’s offline speech system was now being interpreted as self-authored, as being
like talking to oneself, and not as being like the voice of another person or a god (with or
without auditory hallucination) talking to you.
Let us return to the word ‘I’ in the statement “I was thinking ‘X.’ “ In the present
discussion of mental experiences ‘I’ is short for ‘Ego-I One.’ Ego-I One is a
metaphorical entity which, in contemporary terms, is like a person in the left brain who is
thinking-saying X and, because this is a motor activity, such thinking-saying is
proprioceptive or experiential. Recall that proprioception accompanies all motor activity
and is the feeling that the body knows it is doing something---if that something comes to
consciousness. In the case of thinking-saying, it is thoughts which are sufficiently
charged with emotion that come to consciousness and which thereby tend to be
remembered in the longer term. Note that the thought that is remembered is not ‘X’ but “I
was thinking ‘X.’” The particular proprioceptive feeling in the case of thinking-saying is
the feeling that the thoughts X which are being conveyed to the metaphorical person in
the awareness system in the right hemisphere (Ego-I Two) are assembled and ‘spoken’ by
Ego-I One. If X happens to be a command, we can interpret it as the metaphorical Ego-I
One saying “Ego-I One told Ego-I Two to do ‘X.’”
The concept of ‘self’ is entering this story in several ways. In real world conversations
words like ‘oneself,’ ‘yourself’and ‘myself’ are grammatically useful extensions of the
word ‘I.’ But what about ‘the self’ as appears in discussions of mental experience? The
understanding favoured here is that the self is, structually, a family or library (more
metaphors) of narratives constructed from the sequence of autobiographical memories
which is a record of the thoughts and images of which the individual has previously
become conscious. Examples might be the story of where and why you lived in
particular places at different times, or ‘my first day as an apprentice,’ or ‘what I have
learned about women.’ In very general terms, such narratives identify and report,
syntactically, similarities and differences amongst one’s episodic memories. This is what
gives them meaning.
Viewing the self functionally, narrative chains abstracted by a process of association from
the brain’s library of memories are available to the speech-thought system as imputs
which, along with inputs from the awareness system, can be used for constructing
behavioural options (schemata) in what-to-do situations. Depending on the emotional
acceptability (to the limbic arousal system) of a narrative which is being suggested as a
Wittgenstein (1921/ 19745.6 5.61 tractatus )
behavioural option, it may be reflected, more than once perhaps, between the awareness
and speech-thought systems; and it may be modified in the process. When a narratised
behavioural option is accepted and physically implemented it is as if, metaphorically, the
body has acted as the agent of the mind, of Ego-I.
Thus, the link between consciousness and the self is that consciousness is the process
which gets thoughts that the (unconscious) mind evaluates as emotionally significant into
long-term memory, tagging them as mental experiences; once stored, these memories are
the stuff of which the self’s narratives are made. It follows that it is misleading to regard
the self as a metaphorical person and that the thoughts one becomes conscious of are not
so much self-authored as authored, metaphorically, by Ego-I One with the aid of the self.
More than this, the self, still understanding it as an ever-changing library of memorybased narratives, is available to become an integrated object of consciousness, a gestalt,
which, as it develops over a lifetime, becomes the basis of the individual’s unique
identity. It is worth emphasising here that part of any individual’s self-awareness
(conscious awareness of hir self) is the realisation that it is but one entity which is
accumulating memories. That is, the concept of the self includes a recognition that
something which all its memories have in common is the fact that they record the
experiences of a single unique bodily organism. It is an idea which is so blindingly
obvious to us, at least till we encounter the ‘pathological’ idea of multiple selves, that we
find it hard to comprehend that it had to be learned. Somewhat similarly, Snell describes
how archaic Greeks had words for the limbs but no word for the living body. By
classical times they had learned to recognise that collectively the joints, limbs and torso
formed a single entity.147 It is to one’s self-based narratives that Solon, the great
Athenian law giver and founder of Greek democracy, is referring when, in 600 BCE, he
coins the injunction: Know thyself. Jaynes (1986) suggests that Solon might be the first
person to seem like us, talking about the mind in the way we do.
Identity and accountability
In contemporary everyday life, knowing yourself, having a sense of self, means, to make
a useful distinction, having a sense of both a social and a personal identity. Your social
identity is derived from playing roles in the various social groupings you feel part of and
are identified as belonging to (eg, teacher, mother). You learn to play the role of being a
member of a social group by building up memories of past participation in group
activities and drawing on these to visualise and narratise normative behaviours for
yourself which accord with the group’s precepts and institutions. Institutions are defined
by Douglass North as the humanly devised constraints, formal and informal, that
structure political, economic and social interaction.148 As in a tribal society, generalising
Snell chapter 1
D.C. North, Institutions, The Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (Winter (1)) (1991)
and imitating the behaviour of others still remains important to the acquisition of a social
identity. Your identity within a social group is confirmed when you are able to say: I am
an X which means I do Y. As discussed somewhat chillingly by Arthur Koestler,149 a
sense of belonging to a group can be very rewarding emotionally and the ‘need to
belong,’ the need to be approved, is dangerously strong in most people.
Your personal identity, on the other hand, is based on an awareness, an identification, of
how your habits, appetencies, beliefs, experiences etc differ from those of others and,
indeed, how your preferred behaviours might not be as satisfying to others as they are to
you---and therefore, you predict, they might not behave as you would. Being able to
articulate one’s sense of personal identity means being able to say: I am John Smith and I
am the sort of person who behaves in such-and-such ways when… And you do. You act
out what you believe yourself to be like, and, in doing so, test your understanding of your
relationship with the world, eg your powers, skills etc.150 Under this perspective, your
personality is your consistent behaviours, your character is the values to which your
behaviour conforms.
While one’s personal and social identities evolve throughout life, they nonetheless
provide reasonably stable day-to-day guidance, ‘suggesting’ behavioural options which
previous experience has found to produce emotionally acceptable outcomes (as well as
rejecting emotionally unacceptable options). Habits are formed and, much of the time,
habitual behaviour does not even reach consciousness. Notwithstanding, there is
commonly a tension between the behavioural suggestions offered by, respectively, one’s
social and personal identities. One’s social identity suggests behaving in ways which
reinforce the group’s continuation and your membership therein and one’s personal
identity suggests behaving in ways which, foremostly, will produce satisfactory emotions
in oneself, even at the cost of undermining the functionality of the group. And that
tension, in one form or another, is of course one of the great recurring themes of
literature, the humanities and the human sciences. Perhaps the pervasive idea that
humans (have a capacity to) make choices had its origins in the overt recognition of this
perennial tension and its somewhat unpredictable consequences.
Over the first millennium BCE, the directions in which vocabularies were expanding
suggest that people’s personal identities were evolving and developing far more than their
social identities. Homer’s Achilles could never have said, “When I was a little boy back
in Greece…” but, written some centuries later, his Odysseus could. More generally, the
idea began to spread that, as well as gods and authority figures telling people what to do,
Ghost in machine
Taylor, Charles (1971). "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man," reprinted in
/Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, /Vol. II., Cambridge
University Press.
people could, metaphorically, tell themselves what to do, ie authorise their own
behaviour; just as leaders tell followers what to do in the real world.
And then, early in the first millennium another new insight appears to have been grafted
onto people’s understanding of their mental experiences, one which helps explain the rise
of that age’s new religions. This further idea was that when people make choices
between behavioural options, it is as though, metaphorically, they are agreeing with
themselves about what to do---just as, in the real world, hunters might debate and agree
on a hunting strategy.
Once the idea is perceived, rightly or wrongly, that people ‘agree to and authorise’ their
own behaviour, it can be re-expressed as the idea that people are responsible for or
accountable to themselves for their own behaviour. The opposed idea of being
accountable to an external authority figure for one’s behaviour first appears in the written
record in the legal code of Hammurabi (3760 BP). For example:
"If a man uses violence on another man's wife to sleep with her,
the man shall be killed, but the wife shall be blameless."
The suggestion here is that in the ‘axial age’ of the first millennium BCE, the idea of
accountability was internalised. Just as external authorities can hold you responsible for
your behaviour and punish you for breaking society’s rules, you can be accountable to
yourself and punish yourself for breaking your own or another’s proposed rules, eg by
doing penance or by feeling guilty. It is at this time, independently in China, India and
the Mediterranean world, that there emerged spiritual leaders and philosophers who,
supported in some cases by sacred texts and claims of divine revelation, provided people
with moral codes and psychological insights to guide their behaviour, both social and
Even though the great empires of the Bronze Age had given way to a raft of smaller
states, the power of state apparatuses to control individual behaviour through a legal
system backed by coercion remained. For instance, in the middle of the sixth century
BCE, a penal code of law formed the system of political control in China.151 The elites
there believed it more important to keep the people, through strict laws, from doing ‘evil’
than to encourage them, through moral persuasion, to do good.
Despite such attitudes, a massive change was occurring in the psychological control of
behaviour. Unlike being told what to do on a case-by-case basis by the gods or their
messengers or their signs, individual behaviour was now beginning to be controlled
through a process of obeying, in absentia, authority figures who were seen to have no
direct coercive power over one. The origins of morality lie in interpreting and obeying
the behavioural rules proclaimed by a spiritual leader or secular (non-theistic)
Ames RT (1983) The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought
philosopher while the origins of individualism lie in obeying ‘rules’ derived from one’s
own experience.
Institutions, including legal systems and traditions, customs, and widely shared moral
codes are all powerful technologies for stabilising and integrating societies, protecting
them from disruptive individual behaviour and fostering predictable behaviour. But
societies also need to be able to adapt to internal and external changes, must learn to do
things differently, if they are to have any prospect of surviving. The advent of morality
and individualism both created possibilities for novel behaviours to be suggested and
tried at a rate in line with the rate of social change.
How was this so? In the case of received moral codes, it was because disciples and
priests had to adapt general injunctions about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviour from a sage
or prophet to particular situations. For example, this might require the meanings of
words to drift, amounting over time to a major reinterpretation of the orignal teachings.
Particularly for ‘divinely inspired’ teachings, most people, eschewing individualistic
interpretations (few could read), chose to accept priestly interpretations of the authority’s
words. Provided that their priests were flexible enough, this would suffice for a society
to learn new ways of behaving while not exceeding the society’s capacity to change
without breaking down.
However, it was individualism and secular philosophy rather than flexible morality at
group level which led to the major changes in social and cognitive technologies that
characterise the Greek enlightenment. For example, it was the broad acceptance in
Athenian society of the idea that individuals are responsible for their own behaviour and
free to think and worship as they please, plus the additional idea that all male citizens
have an equal claim to positions of authority (eg public office), that produced the group
governance technology we know as democracy. Metaphorically, democracy can be
thought of as an externalisation to the group of the individual’s capacity to internally
generate and evaluate alternative behavioural options. Politically, rule by democraticallyagreed law had now emerged as a technology which challenged the arbitrary powers of
kings. Thus, for some, democracy was more a threat to order than a wellspring of
responsive decision-making: Plato condemned the city-state of Athens for giving power
over their own lives to people who had neither the inclination nor training to accept it.
Reflecting on the First Millennium BCE
Three thousand years ago the world was coming to the end of its Bronze Age. Cities,
states and empires were being destabilised or even destroyed by various sorts of internal
and external shocks. Some of these were widespread like drought and earthquake and
others were transmitted from place to place as people were displaced by marauding and
famine and as trade routes closed down. Military technologies were increasingly
destructive, armies increasingly mobile. Far-flung and growing populations had to be
managed. Bronze Age society had become a dissipative system which was reorganising
to something simpler as its material and energy supplies failed.
This was the world in which the post-glacial “tribal” mind, or what Jaynes calls the
bicameral mind, proved inadequate for making decisions which could protect Eurasia’s
complex theocratic-militaristic societies from disruption or breakdown. Whether or not
what-to-do plans were being interpreted as divinely ordered, the fact remains that such
were relying heavily on an accumulated reservoir of custom and tradition and myth. It
was a reservoir which, till then, and not withstanding some earlier collapses, had evolved
fast enough to routinely supply plausible responses to the slowly complexifying suite of
problems thrown up during the essentially-benign Holocene. However, now that, in
many societies, multiple shocks had to be managed simultaneously, multi-faceted
decisions were needed. As Ashby’s law of requisite variety says, the larger the variety
of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations the control
system is able to compensate for.152 Custom, tradition and myth were not providing
enough control.
As it transpired, a powerful new way of thinking did emerge; metaphorical thinking grew
out of magical thinking. Over time, the fruits of this cultural adaptation, this cognitive
technology, were astounding---consciousness, the self, personal and social identity,
morality and individualism. For the first time people were thinking about and learning to
talk about their mental experiences. More generally, drawing on a vocabulary of
concepts which, with the aid of metaphorical thinking, continued to expand steadily,
people began asking and postulating answers to an ever-wider range of questions about
society, the individual, religion and the natural world. This was the environment within
which the axial age’s great religious and secular thinkers emerged.
For Eurasians, the world became an intellectually richer, better understood and more
predictable place. But, while science, art, literature and philosophy flourished in various
urban centres, did decision-making and plan-making improve? In what-to-do situations,
were more, and more creative, options being considered and evaluated more realistically
in terms of their consequences? Were societies in the second half of the first millennium
BCE more able to cope with or prevent internal and external shocks? Or did the
fierceness of the disruptive forces, natural and social, swamp the new cognitive
technologies? Given many confounding factors it is difficult to say, but the evidence
suggests the latter. Certainly the Greeks, despite being in the vanguard of the
consciousness-cognition revolution, and despite building a mighty empire under
Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE), were finally conquered by the Romans in 31 BCE.
Notwithstanding the spread of Greek culture in the wake of Alexander’s conquests and
the eruption of cognition-consciousness revolutions in various centres across Eurasia, the
world, in many respects, did not change. After the chaos of the late Bronze Age, nation
states slowly recovered and re-formed, but were soon turning frequently, as before, to
war, empire-building (Assyria, Persia, Babylon…) and the enslavement of conquered
peoples as technologies for boosting energy surpluses available to their military and
Ashby’s law of requisite variety
priestly ruling classes who continued to dominate their own societies through coercion,
religious obligation and patronage. For a variety of reasons, the internal management of
urban populations was becoming more difficult. These included population growth per
se, an increasing diversity of occupations due to changing technologies, and an increasing
diversity of tribal and religious affiliations amongst the residents. Other reasons included
the need to replenish armies and, under the influence of the new individualism, the
greater willingness of a few to question authority. Still, not to put too fine a point on it, as
a technology for improving Holocene society’s survival prospects, consciousnesscognition was a failure, at least in the short term. [[[greek enlightenment was an
adaptation which had limited impact on politics (class conflict) (morality won) and
international relations at the time but re-emerged during the Renaissance]]]]]
Nonetheless, with the conquest of Greece by Rome, the world did enter a period of
increased geopolitical stability. By the end of the first millennium BCE, most of the
world's people were to be found in four major agricultural civilizations stretching from
the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, north and south of the Mediterranean and across
southern and eastern Asia. To the east of the Roman empire was the neo-Persian or
Parthian empire (covering Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran). To the west of the Chinese Han
empire was the Kushan empire covering parts of northern India, Afghanistan and central
Standing back from just the first millennium BCE, what did the entire post-glacial period
up to the beginning of the Common Era demonstrate about the ability of humans to
survive and thrive? Accepting that there is no way of making reliable estimates, we can
suggest that human population grew over this period from, perhaps, 5-10 m to, perhaps,
150-200 m. As for thriving, average life expectancy before the health transition of the
modern era is thought to have varied between about 20 years and 35 years. But, as noted
earlier, it seems that life expectancy might have fallen after the Neolithic revolution (a)
because of higher infection rates associated with larger, denser settlements and (b) poorer
nutrition, the result of a low-variety diet deficient in certain amino acids. For
comparison, life expectancy at birth in the United States in 1900 was still only 47 years.
One can further imagine that life, at least for the lower classes, would have been
unremittingly physically demanding and psychologically unhealthy. By our standards,
coercion and superstition dominated people’s lives---perhaps they acculturated and were
not too miserable.
One illuminating way to view the human story over this ten thousand year period, putting
it into the context of a much larger story, is to see it in terms of energy flows through
various dissipative systems. The starting point for taking this perspective is to see the
globe as a single, but multi-layered (hierarchical), dissipative system which began
processing, dissipating and storing increased quantities of energy from the sun as the last
glacial period was coming to an end. These increased energy flows went, first of all, into
speeding up the rate at which materials (primarily water and gases, but also minerals)
were being cycled through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. More than this,
flows through these cycles spontaneously reorganised themselves into somewhat different
kinetic structures (persistent flow paths). In other words, circulation patterns changed.
The world’s ecosystems are dissipative systems that are embedded in, that redirect
materials and energy from these global cycles, as well as taking in direct solar energy.
They are organised into persisting trophic structures (food webs) where energy and
nutrients captured by primary producers (plants) are consumed, degraded and recycled by
herbivores and then by carnivores and finally by soil organisms. The functional reason
why such structures persist is that each trophic level contributes, by way of stabilising
energy or nutrient sources, to making the environment more equable or less demanding
for organisms at other trophic levels. The population of any species in an established
ecosystem is likely to be more stable in face of perturbations in global cycles than it
would be outside that system. In their turn, in response to post-glacial changes in global
cycles, the world’s ecosystems self-reorganised, migrating, expanding and contracting.
As hunter-gatherers, humans were adapted to a variety of ecosystems during the last ice
age. They occupied niches where they survived by harvesting and eating local
components of the food-web flows (plants and animals). At this stage in their history,
humans, in many ways, were just another large predatory mammal, one who successfully
displaced other large predators from their niches. Subsequently they survived the further
suite of climatic and ecospheric changes associated with post-glacial changes in the
global energy budget. At first they adapted to this new environment by simply changing
their harvesting behaviours. For example, seed-gathering became a way of life as grasses
proliferated across the Fertile Crescent and the Asian steppes. And then, momentously,
perhaps triggered by the temporary return of harsher times, they began to actively adapt
the environment itself to more reliably provide for their energy needs. They learned to
use their own human energy to trigger and guide increasing energy-material flows
through selected edible plant and animal species (crop plants and grazing animals), and
then through animal species which could provide draft power and transport. The
significance of grazing animals is that they can assimilate, and convert to usable energy,
parts of plants which humans can't eat directly. Because they store sunlight which would
otherwise be dissipated as heat, plants retard the dissipation of energy while plant-eating
animals accelerate it. Agro-ecosystems is a useful term for ecosystems whose materialenergy flows have been substantially modified in order to increase human-food
production. New adjunct technologies, ie other than cropping and herding per se (eg
better ploughs, milking sheep and cattle), can be viewed as ways of further increasing the
yield and reliability of supply of useable plant and animal energy per unit of human
energy expended.
These adaptations or, equally, technologies for harvesting domesticated species increased
usable energy supplies to the point where populations within Neolithic villages expanded.
For a long time, land was not a limiting factor in the food production system and when a
village passed optimum size in terms of organisation, walking distance to cropping areas
etc, a new village was established nearby and populated from the old village. Such
fissioning, so commonplace in biological and physical dissipative systems when a
system’s size or its energy supplies increase, can also be seen as the tribe’s way of
reducing the world to size, to terms with which they could deal (Adams p.281).
Several factors combined to bring Eurasia’s Neolithic Revolution to an end and trigger an
Urban Revolution based on the social technologies of urban consolidation and task
specialisation and on the material technologies associated with extensive irrigated
agriculture. A drying climate was certainly one factor. Another was that, under ongoing
population growth and fissioning, land for dryland cropping did start to become limiting,
both in quality and quantity. Another was that, while small by modern standards, the
surplus energy made available by domesticating plants and animals was sufficient to
encourage marauding and, conversely, to encourage the aggregation of villages for
defence reasons.
So, once populations began to grow and aggregate on the fertile flood plains of great
rivers, the pre-conditions were in place to establish extensive irrigation schemes in which
crop production per field worker was much higher and more reliable than in village
agriculture. Laying down the infrastructure for such schemes required the organisation of
massive amounts of labour, as did the ongoing maintenance of channels, headworks etc.
It was for the sustenance of the builders, managers and defenders of these undertakings
that the new surpluses were destined.
Not that urban civilisations developed from village agriculture overnight. Just as the
mammalian eye did not evolve as the result of a single mutation, urban culture did not
flow from a single visionary purposive action. Neolithic culture was reshaped into urban
culture by extended sequences of innovative activities such that each step in each
sequence became a pre-adaptation which (unintentionally) established (some of) the
conditions under which the next step could emerge.153 If it were not to be resisted as a
perceived threat to the established order, each step would necessarily have been small in
terms of the amount of energy redirection it involved. We will take it on trust here that
such sequences might be plausibly reconstructed.
The term coevolution can be usefully introduced here to capture the fact that adaptations
in one type of technology will sometimes serve as pre-adaptations for another type of
technology, the obvious example being that the adaptations in the material technologies
of food production, technologies which produced surpluses, were a necessary precondition for the emergence of social stratification, a social technology. In another clear
example of coevolution, developments in agricultural and social technologies
transformed natural ecosystems into agro-ecosystems; and when reigning technologies
Purpose End state that one plans to assist to eventuate (a) because it seems causally
feasible and (b) which, for sufficient reasons, one wishes to see eventuate.
degraded the resource base (erosion, salinisation), niches appeared for ameliorative
technologies. But whether this led to directed coevolution in the form of an active search
for ameliorants we do not have the evidence to judge. More broadly, diffusion of
technologies from one society to another (eg via trade, war) suggests as a plausible form
of coevolution between Holocene societies.
Cultural evolution is here being likened to biological evolution wherein a sequence of
‘short-sighted’ adaptations, each selected for their immediate survival benefits, can lead
to new species or, conversely, to the channelling of a species into an evolutionary cul-desac. In much cultural evolution, including the transition to urban culture, it is exploratory
and playful behaviour by individuals which throws up variations on existing customary
behaviour patterns, variations which, for our purposes, are technological innovations. An
occasional such variation will be recognised as perhaps improving an existing technology
and selected for further trial. If this perception of improvement persists under a range of
conditions, the selected variant may be ‘permanently’ incorporated into the technology
recipe and become widely used.
The degree to which such adaptations were conscious and purposive cannot be known,
although that interpretation does seem doubtful for much of the Holocene prior to the
Common Era, ie, it is doubtful that people at that time could have said ‘We are trying to
improve this technology.’ That sort of thinking would have been more characteristic of
the first millennium BCE. It is probably more realistic to think of cultural evolution prior
to, say, the axial age beginning about 800 BCE as a matter of people imitating their own
and others’ accidental successes; verbal instruction would have played a part too.
Sociologist AnthonyGiddens’ theory of structuration, while focused on change in modern
societies, is equally suggestive of how social structures and human agency might have
interacted in the Holocene to produce cultural evolution: Repetition of their role-defined
tasks by individuals reproduces the social structure---traditions, institutions, moral codes,
and established ways of doing things---but these can be changed when people start to
ignore them, replace them, or reproduce them differently154 (ref). This model recognises
two-way causation, with humans having structuring power and structures having enabling
and constraining power. (Lloyd, 1993:42-43)
Holocene Survival Strategies
One can think, metaphorically, of Holocene society as having been a single entity (call
her Humanity) who was intentionally trying to develop ‘what-to-do’ survival strategies in
the face of, first, large exogenous changes in her bio-physical environment and, second,
(endogenous) survival threats caused, in part, by her own prior survival strategies.
Coming into the Holocene, Humanity retained the hunter-gatherer strategy (social
technology) of dividing into widespread geographically-separated groups each capable of
multiplying in the presence of a food surplus. This is a strategy which ‘recognises’ that
Lloyd, Christopher (1993) The structures of history. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.42-3
environmental conditions vary from place to place and ensures that locally-harsh
conditions will only threaten a portion of the species. Comparably, the strategy of
developing two very different food production systems---cropping and herding---might
also be seen as a form of risk management insofar as global changes might impact
differently on the two systems. Against that idea, different production systems, as wellargued by Diamond, simply reflect adaptation to different local resource complements.155
Early in the Neolithic the social technology of marauding---plundering the grain stores of
neighbouring villages---was invented and while it may have provided a spike of cheap
energy supplies to the raiders, marauding, on almost any reading, would have to be
judged one of the great maladaptations of all time. First, it reduced total food supplies
insofar as the marauders were temporarily unproductive. Second, it threatened,
particularly during drought, the survival of the portion of the population being deprived
of food reserves (although this does raise the suggestion that marauding functioned as a
(very inefficient) method of population control in situations where carrying capacity
limits were being approached). Third, it forced those being plundered to invest their
energies in defending their reserves, by forming both armed forces and inefficiently-large
but more defendable villages-towns. Fourth, it killed off the able-bodied and, with the
soon-to-be-invented technology of taking the defeated into slavery, further depleted the
survival prospects of the ‘losers’ in such encounters; in a perverse way taking prisoners
probably improved communication between village societies and hence opportunities to
exchange technologies. Fifth, it led to a tit-for-tat mentality which would only be checked
with the establishment of empires having the “head-banging” coercive powers to stop
marauding within their borders. [[ We might also note that there is no reason to believe
that cycles of plundering and being plundered imposed selective pressures which,
genetically or culturally---even if they had persisted long enough---improved Humanity’s
longer-term survival prospects]]
Overall, marauding, exacerbated by a drying climate after 5500 BP, led Neolithic society
into a social trap where the species’ survival prospects could not be further enhanced and
where, despite its high external costs, there was no escape. That is, not until Holocene
society self-reorganised around a new set of material, social and communicative
technologies, notably extensive irrigated cropping and cities with populations stratified
by socio-economic role. By diverting the energy of river flows into reliably delivering
water and alluvium to grain crops, the new urban civilisations increased net energy yield
per field worker markedly. One can only speculate as to what would have happened if
Eurasia had had no great river valleys capable of supporting cities and large-scale
irrigated agriculture. We are provided here with a good example of the contingent nature
of cultural evolution.
Conversely, the relative decline of village agriculture illustrates how a successful survival
strategy can exhaust the resources it draws from the dissipative system in which it is
embedded (eg vacant habitable land); and also how a successful strategy can be
threatened by parasitic behaviour from within (as well as by climatic etc shocks from
without). Indeed, in the distinction between raiders and raided one can see the beginnings
of the human equivalent of what biologists call pseudospecies, ie sub-populations of a
species which, at times, behave as separate species (eg work together, breed together)
including, perhaps, behaving in ways inimical to the interests of other pseudospecies. For
example, Steven LeBlanc (2003) argues that humans have long been the main predators
on the human species.156 Alternatively, a pseudospecies is a group with a shared
culture.157 It is an idea to which we will return, along with the further idea that
pseudospecies, as well as parasitising each other, can associate symbiotically, ie in
mutually beneficial ways. Catton’s (p100) [sp?] less emotive term for parasitism is
antibiosisis and Richard Adams’ less biological term for pseudospecies is operating
In moving from a survival strategy based on village agriculture and herding to one
predominantly based on extensive irrigated cropping and urbanism (plus urbanism’s
associated social technologies), Humanity was learning to convert accessible energy to
more useful forms at a higher rate per field worker per annum. The size of the overall
surplus was further increased by using poorly fed slaves and ‘serfs’ as field workers.
However, apart from the use of river energy to transport water and materials, most of the
energy being captured for human purposes still came from plants and animals. From a
contemporary perspective, these were still low-energy societies.
Most of the modest surplus was used to energise the increasingly complex and diverse
set of overhead activities---religious, military, engineering, trading---needed to maintain,
protect and sometimes-expand an increasingly complex production system. Recall
Ashby’s idea that an effective control system needs to be as complex as that which is
being controlled. Central to the strategy was the emergence of political states as the
dominant form of social organisation; each state had a ruling class with the capacity
(technologies) to organise a working class into reliably providing the large amounts of
labour, both manual and craft, needed to keep things going (reproduce the society) from
season to season and year to year. Having control over food distribution, coercive
powers and religious authority all played a part here. Whether it was seen as such we
cannot know, but appropriating food surpluses also functions as a population control
Lorenz On Aggression p80
Catton P101 among higher forms of life there are increasingly elaborate symbiotic
relations within species behaving differently and making somewhat different
demands on the environment ..with man is as if we are divided into many species ..a
distinct confign of competitive (antibiotic) and symbiotic relations
Adams, RN (1975) Energy and Structure: A Theory of Social Power, University of Texas
Press, Austin and London, p 54.
mechanism (White P205). Effectively, a ruling pseudospecies had developed
technologies which allowed it to ‘domesticate’ a labouring pseudospecies. It was an
association which was mutually beneficial to the extent that each pseudospecies needed
the other to survive but which also relied on ‘exploiting’ the working class to extract coordinated flows of human energy large enough to undertake collective works such as
constructing religious monuments, protecting supplies of raw materials (eg wood, stone,
minerals) and conquering neighbouring states/ settlements to create empires.
While the practice of marauding at inter-village level was increasingly suppressed within
individual empires and large states, it re-emerged, as the Bronze Age blossomed, in the
form of frequent organised warfare between states and/or empires. In the mid-Holocene
world, empires were as much pseudospecies as were classes within an empire, the
difference being, perhaps, that the mainly conflictual relations between empires produced
minimal mutual benefits. Trade was a limited exception possibly. [[[[[White (p227)
reflects that because of tendency to romanticise the past, there is little awareness of the
frequency of internal and external conflict in the great agrarian empires. ]]]
Notwithstanding ambition, Bronze Age empires were restricted in size by not having
technologies which allowed rapid communications (of commands, information etc) and
transport (of people, materials etc) over long distances. Cottrell (p34) points out that none
of the fertile crescent civilisations could expand beyond limits imposed by the relatively
high energy cost of transporting surplus energy to be used at distant frontiers. The Egypt
of the Pharaohs is a good example. Over time, these limits relaxed somewhat with the
rise of a technology set which included horses large enough to ride, wheeled wagons,
chariots and, most importantly, communication by writing. Hence, as the Common Era
approached, most people in Eurasia lived in one of four great empires.
The millennium before the Common Era also saw a succession of maritime trading
cultures or sea powers, based on networks of coastal cities; most notably Phoenicia,
Greece and Rome. Using sailed and oared vessels significantly reduced the energy costs
of transporting goods and soldiers between coastal cities around and near the
Mediterranean Sea. Putting this another way, societies which mastered maritime
technologies were in an enhanced position to rule the seas, acquire colonies and slaves
and monopolise the expanding gains from trade. For example, it can be argued that the
boundaries of the Roman empire were set at the point where the extra costs of enforcing
Roman rule at a distance balanced the extra gains from tribute and trade; and that it was
maritime technologies that particularly allowed those boundaries to be extended. While
oared war galleys remained in use till the 18th century CE, it was the efficient use of
sailing technologies, with their ability to capture “free” wind energy, which came to
increasingly determine the wealth and strength of nations on the geopolitical satage.
Ready to Survive the Common Era?
Any notion that urbanised medium-energy societies of the post-Neolithic Holocene were
in some way ‘better’ than low-energy village societies of the earlier Holocene must be
rejected. Each developed and employed its own technology-mix in its own
environmental context. The fact that medium-energy societies processed energy at a
higher rate per capita through a more complex social structure does not imply that they
had a greater intrinsic capacity to survive (self-reproduce), or that they offered the
individual a higher quality of life. In principle, the advantage of having more decisions
made by a ruling class is that this offers the possibility of adjusting a society’s behaviour
more rapidly than waiting for tradition and custom to respond to changed circumstances.
In the event, both low and medium energy societies co-evolved with their total
environments to the point where they were no longer recognisable as the societies
described above. Having said that, to the modern eye, and given the choice, one might
prefer to be a member of a low-energy village society offering something like liberty,
equality and fraternity rather than being a member of a medium-energy society
characterised by state power over the individual, a strongly stratified society and loss of
the mutual aid provided in low-energy societies by strong kinship systems.
By the beginning of the Common Era, many of the broad elements of the survival
strategy which Humanity would use for the next 2000 years were well in place. To
recapitulate, these included:
Growing the size of the human population and (a) spreading parts of that population into
unoccupied or lightly populated niches as these become available and (b) concentrating
parts of that population into cities
Using food-energy surpluses to support the political organisation of populations into
geographically bounded and occupationally-structured (social pyramids[[??]]) states and
Using conquest and war between states/empires to expand the scale of and reap the
benefits of activity-co-ordination at a broader scale, eg ameliorating localised disasters,
suppressing inter-state conflicts. [[[Wesson And, conversely, to shake up ossified
societies and allow them to be reorganised…..war creates new suites of NICHES (yeah,
yeah) .]]]]
Using trade within and between states and empires to acquire resources for improving the
efficiency with which production systems and production-support systems operate. Trade
can lubricate a society by making a limiting resource more available.
Developing and adopting technologies (material, social, cognitive and communicative)
which reduce the human effort needed to carry out the tasks through which society
reproduces and protects itself from environmental and other variability.
The fact that humans have not died out means that this survival strategy (including its
various elaborations) has not failed, either before or after the common era began.
Perhaps this has just been luck in that if (eg) a slightly longer drought or more virulent
pandemic had occurred the species would have disappeared. Think how close to
extinction the Mt Toba eruption brought humanity 70 kya. Alternatively, if they had
occurred, Humanity may have survived disturbances much more threatening than those to
which she was actually exposed. We cannot know.
Taking another tack, what if we imagine metaphorical Humanity to have been seeking to
develop a quality survival strategy rather than one directed exclusively towards survival?
Here, I mean a quality survival strategy to be one seeking to offer high quality of life to
most members of the species. Many measures suggest themselves. One is how much
exhausting and unrewarding physical work people have to do to survive. Another is how
frequently and severely local and regional populations crash under the strategy. On both
these measures Humanity’s quality survival strategy seems to have performed badly, both
before and during the Common Era. While war, famine and pestilence have not halted
the upward climb in human numbers since the last glacial, countless regional and local
populations have been depleted and disorganised by these and other associated scourges
such as mass migrations and other flow-on effects of natural disasters. In between such
disturbances, most people in most societies since the urban revolution, have had their
lives shortened by debilitating work. [[more stability in local and regional populations ]]]]
While a survival strategy with the same broad foci (population, pyramidal societies,
conquest, trade, technology) persisted through the Common Era, the particular
technologies (including material, social, communicative and cognitive technologies)
through which these focal concerns were recognised changed enormously. As
consequential examples, the Common Era saw the emergence, although not necessarily
the full flowering, of:
Markets for all factors of production, including land, labour and capital
Extraction and use of non-renewable energy
Technologies for systematically and deliberately creating new technologies, eg scientific
research and development
Human rights
Global governance
Population control technologies
A global economy
In the next chapter we will consider a little of the Common Era’s history, looking for
trends, patterns and generalisations that provide context for understanding, and perhaps
better managing the contemporary world. Here, we pause to bring together our
accumulating understanding of the mechanisms underlying cultural evolution
There are many perspectives from which one can view and begin to understand how
human ecosystems change with time. In my book Deep Futures I find value in
viewpoints from all of history, geography, sociology-anthropology, social psychology,
systems theory, ecology and evolutionary biology.159
The biological disciplines are rather more concerned with changes amongst species in
general---their interactions and their phylogenetic-ontogenetic paths---than with the
human species in particular. Nonetheless, despite fierce debate over the specifics of
biological change (at all space-time scales), and despite its many gaps, the biologist’s
story of how the human lineage became hunter-gatherers is plausible (no miracles) and
wonder-full (Fancy that!). By the end of the last ice age, the species’ capacity to adapt
had equipped it with a phenotype (set of observable characteristics) and a suite of
cognitive, social, material and communicative technologies which, with or without any
further evolution, was going to allow the species to survive and multiply under the
markedly different conditions of the Holocene. In many ways, humans turned out to be
pre-adapted to their new environment.
While the creation of biological adaptations by natural selection, symbiosis, selforganisation etc has never stopped, the additional contribution of such to the persistence
of the human ecosystem declined relatively and (probably) absolutely after the emergence
of modern humans (c. 200 kya). Thereafter it was cultural evolution---treated here as
much the same as technological evolution when the latter is broadly defined---which,
prima facie, produced the adaptive behaviours that appear to have allowed humans to
continue surviving. Thus, come the Holocene, it was cultural-technological evolution
which was largely responsible for the Neolithic, urban and consciousness-cognition
And, as argued earlier, cultural evolution is strongly analogous to the basic Darwinian
process of natural selection through variation and selective retention---but with two
exceptions. One exception is that variations in the pool of available technologies are not
only generated by random exploratory behaviour but purposively in response to a
perceived opportunity or challenge. More of that below. The other difference is that the
process of selecting which new technologies will be adopted widely is more accurately
thought of as a diffusion process based on imitation and learning, rather than as one based
on relative reproductive success. Together, these differences convince some to describe
Deep Futures
cultural evolution as more Lamarckian than Darwinian.160 Perhaps so, but what is more
important is to recognise that both speciation and changes in human ecosystems
exemplify the same process of universal evolution. It is the ‘details’ that are different.
With the arrival of the Holocene, the perspectives of the human-centred disciplines
become increasingly relevant to the modelling of change in human ecosystems. This is
particularly so as equilibrium-centred theorising about human societies has given way to
change-centred theorising; that is, there has been a shift from seeing societies as basically
unchanging to seeing them as always changing, sometimes rapidly, sometimes (very)
slowly. Basic to the theorising of the human-centred disciplines is the idea of agency, i.e.
of individuals and groups (pseudospecies, classes, states, interest groups etc) responding
to changes in their circumstances by making behavioural choices according to various
more-or-less-rational criteria, including their beliefs and preferences. British
philosopher, R. G. Collingwood was especially appreciative of the role played by
thinking in determining historical phenomena: “All history,” he once affirmed, “is the
history of thought.”161 Given this starting point, social change can be studied in terms of
the cascading mutually-causal interactions that are triggered by the behavioural choices
of groups and individuals. But of course it was not until the Holocene that societies
produced the social groupings and autonomous individuals which make such a
conceptualisation possible. The view that people, individually and collectively, can act as
change-agents in society is recognised explicitly in schemata such as Anthony Giddens’
structuration and Christopher Lloyd’s structurism. What is being further suggested here
is that behavioural choices can often be interpreted as decisions to apply some existing or,
occasionally, newly-created technology to what-to-do situations.
The idea that the evolution of human ecosystems---eco-cultural evolution---can be
understood as a pageant of changing interdependent technologies is not at all new. The
very naming of Holocene time-blocks after material technologies (Bronze Age, Iron
Age…) tells us that. Gordon Childe and Lesley White are two well-regarded pioneering
students of Holocene societies who give technological change a central role in their
histories, although both are working with a narrower, primarily material, understanding
of the nature of technology than I am.162 Sociologist Gerhard Lenski is another who sees
sociocultural evolution as a process of technological advance with downstream
consequences.163 Lewis Mumord, a great historian, gets closer to the perspective being
taken here when he suggests that large groups acting coherently, eg to build pyramids,
have all the characteristics of large machines, what he called mega-machines164. My
perspective is that the ‘recipe’ for, say, building pyramids is a social technology.
Another example: Graeme Snooks is the economic historian who sees war, population
(Idea of History, pp. 214-15)]]]
162 Carneiro RL 1973 A Reappraisal of the Roles of Technology and Organisation in the
Origin of Civilization American Antiquity 39 (2) 178-86.
163 Lenski p79 Childe White refs
164 Mumford mega-machines
growth, trade and (material) technology as the main tactics encompassed in humanity’s
long-term survival strategy. Without judging Snooks’ insight per se, I group war,
population growth and trade as social technologies. Even Marshall McLuhan’s famous
aphorism, “the medium is the message,” is saying that technology, directly or indirectly,
drives change---once it is realised that for McLuhan medium means any extension of our
bodies, minds or beings and that the message of any medium is the changes in scale, pace
or pattern that it causes in a culture (pp 43-44 Gutenberg).
Perhaps it needs to be pointed out before proceeding that what is being advocated here is
not technological determinism, at least not in the simple reductionist (‘nothing but…’)
sense of that phrase, ie the view that technology (alone?) determines history, or that
spontaneous developments in technology are the (only?) triggers of social and cultural
change. Or, more narrowly, that developments in a particular functional group of
technologies (eg energy technologies) suffice to explain history. Such a view is
unsatisfactory because it fails to capture the idea of eco-cultural evolution, ie that
(material) technologies and institutions (which I am calling social technologies) coevolve both with each other and with the ecosystem-resource base.165 Every widelyadopted innovation creates niches (externalities) which may or may not evoke further
innovations. For example, urbanisation created a niche for disease-control technology
which was not filled till the arrival of public health reforms in Victorian times. Simple
determinism does not capture the element of niche-identification and purposive
experimentation which underlies much technological innovation.
Patterns of Eco-cultural Evolution
Unfortunately, modelling and understanding eco-cultural evolution in terms of
coevolving technologies confers little capacity to predict future eco-cultural evolution.
This less-than-encouraging conclusion is consistent with the view that social systems are
true dissipative systems which self-re-organise spontaneously (although not necessarily
rapidly) when energy flows through the system change sufficiently. A decision to adopt a
technological change is a bifurcation (meaning, in physical terms, a small, critical energy
fluctuation), under the influence of which the social system moves into a new behavioural
domain (basin of attraction). In this new domain the society still reproduces itself
(cycles) in much the same way but, reflecting the use of new recipes, with some
modifications to the ways energy is allocated to different functions. Accepting societies
By viewing cultural evolution in terms of the coevolution of material and social
technologies one avoids bruising arguments as to which of these leads and which follows in
the development of culture. See Carneiro RL A Reappraisal of the Roles of
Technology and Organization in the Origin of Civilization American
Antiquity, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 179-186
to be true dissipative systems does not preclude seeing them as systems of coevolving
technologies. In appropriate context each perspective is valid and useful.166
While making specific predictions about future change in specific human ecosystems will
always be fraught with uncertainties, there are, nonetheless, all sorts of patterns in the
history of eco-cultural evolution and, if a specific situation matches any of these, a
plausible scenario or two for that situation might thereby suggest itself. The modest
value of this is that if any such unsurprising scenario implies a significant threat or
opportunity, then it would seem sensible to act as though it were highly likely to occur.
Here we have space to mention but a few (overlapping) generalisations and patterns
which illuminate how technologies, singly and together, rose, persisted and fell as threads
in the tapestry of eco-cultural (co)evolution prior to the Common Era (and, when we get
there, in the Common Era too).
All technologies are energy technologies
While many threads can be extracted from the rich tapestry of cultural change in postglacial societies, two stand out. One is the increase over time in energy use per capita per
annum, and the other is the increasing complexity and size of social structures (more
people in more groups, more interactions between groups). And, as suggested, the
streams of technologies underlying these two trends can be seen to have co-evolved.
Cottrell (1955) suggests that the amounts and types of energy a society employs not only
condition its way of life materially, but set somewhat predictable limits on how that
society can and will be organised.
More specifically, technologies which increase a society’s rate of energy conversion (ie,
from one form of energy into entropy and other (useful) forms of energy), necessarily
require additional social structures and relations to acquire and guide the flow of that
additional energy through the society’s technological processes, determining just where
and when it is converted and what further energy conversions it might trigger.
Complexification then is a natural correlate of increased energy use. Population growth
is commonly a part of complexification too and particularly tends to occur when there is a
sustained increase in the food energy available to a society. Increased pollution and
resource degradation are other tendencies associated with increased energy use,
particularly when a system’s additional energy supplies come packaged with materials,
eg food, wood. In this case, pollution is simply the material residues remaining after the
potential energy has been stripped out. In other cases, resource “degradation” is simply a
Abel, T. 1998. Complex adaptive systems, evolutionism, and ecology within
anthropology: Interdisciplinary research for understanding cultural and ecological
dynamics. Georgia Journal of Ecological Anthropology 2: 6—29. Retain this ref ??
rebadging of the fact of resources being diverted from a shrinking system (eg forest) to an
expanding system (eg farming).
All technologies are energy technologies in the sense that they convert energy in one
form to energy in another putatively more useful, form. Jewellery making, to take an
unlikely example, uses human kinetic energy to redistribute energy stored in the bonds of
gemstones from one set of configurations to another. Spear-making produces a tool
which allows human kinetic (movement) energy to be concentrated onto a small surface
area. But technologies which, like these examples, use small amounts of energy per se are
not for that reason unimportant. Many such are trigger technologies which are not
directly useful but which inject sufficient activation energy into another more useful
energy conversion process to allow it to proceed spontaneously. Verbal commands and
signals which use small amounts of energy to convey, potentially, large quantities of
information on which people then act, are good examples. Indeed, all conscious activity
is triggered by the cognitive technology of decision-making. In some situations, a
sequence of triggers may be required before the target technology is activated as when
sparks are struck to initiate the energy-extracting technology of burning wood in a hearth.
In general, a trigger is an energy-dissipating perturbation that releases or inhibits the
further dissipation of its own energy or that of other energy forms. Richard Adams (p 49)
nominates triggers as the key mechanisms that relate one dissipative event to another. A
trigger always has an energy cost and an energy yield and, to achieve efficiency in energy
use, it is important that the ratio of yield to cost be as large as possible. For example, if
human labour is the trigger which converts solar energy to grain, there must be a surplus
of grain-energy output over human-energy input if this technology is to persist.
And, as discussed above, it is when that surplus is large that job specialisation and
urbanisation become possible; the use of human energy to organise and increase control
over human energy is a defining characteristic of civilisation. Even when it is not
efficient in energy cost-yield terms, stratified societies may choose to co-ordinate and
concentrate human energy to undertake tasks which would otherwise be impossible, eg
manning galleys, building pyramids. The use of draft animals for ploughing is another
example where the capacity to do work at a high rate during a critical few weeks of the
year may be more important than being energy-efficient.
A society can only use more energy if it first extracts more energy from primary sources
in the environment. Thus undomesticated plants and animals were almost the only
primary energy source for hunter-gatherers; cultural evolution for them was largely
expressed in the form of better tools. At some stage, fire, a technology for releasing the
energy stored in wood, appeared. Fire was a fundamental technology which opened the
door to an intensification and geographic expansion of human society. In Neolithic and
post-Neolithic times, undomesticated plants and animals were largely replaced by
domesticated species as the primary energy source, along with a range of production
technologies which increased the efficiency with which energy could be extracted from
these sources, ie which saved human energy. Harvesting with sickles and ploughing are
examples of energy-saving technologies. Sailing vessels were almost the only radically
new energy-extraction technology to appear, and that in a minor way, in the Bronze and
Iron Ages. Their time would come.
And, to complete a first simple functional classification of energy technologies, energystorage technologies became possible once the technology-mix was able to reliably
produce an energy surplus; granaries and domestic animals themselves are good
So, it is being suggested, any individual technology in a society’s changing mix of
technologies can be interpreted as contributing to that society’s energy security (stability
of energy flows) in one, or more, ways as follows:
Energy extraction, eg fire-making, food gathering, animal domestication, sails,
marauding, enslaving
Energy release (triggering), eg verbal commands, signals
Energy saving, eg hand tools, water wheels
Energy conversion, eg cropping, food-sharing
Energy concentration, eg labour gangs, galleys, draft animals, hand tools and other
Energy storage, eg granaries, domestic animals
Now we have a vocabulary for understanding, with hindsight, the energetics of cultural
change, ie a society’s changing patterns of energy flows and its behaviour as a dissipative
system. Any historically changing mix of technologies can be described in terms of
changes in energy extraction, concentration, storage etc. And, qualitatively at least, such
changes can be evaluated in terms of their capacity to deliver stable or smoothly changing
energy flows. For example, food-storage and food-sharing technologies allow a society
to survive natural fluctuations in food production.
[[? Hierarchy of technologies in wh big energy flows are dissipated via smaller energy
flows and so on ???]] ]] ][[does this idea have legs .is it in any way a tree or just a
confusing bush ..suspect not ..triggers would be one confusing element ouldn’t
they?//]]]]]] perhaps the clue is to use storages, not flows ..egy stored in food is
transferred to energy stored in humans who then store energy in stone axes
Many technologies are combinatorial
Not all new technologies involve an upgrading of components in existing systems. Many
are combinatorial. That is, components of established technologies are linked together to
form a new composite technology.167 Bronze production is a good example of a ‘long
chain’ technology, requiring as it does the linking of mining technologies, transport
technologies and smelting technologies. And while bronze production is a material
technology, it would not be possible without adequate social technologies for coordinating the links in the production chain. We might also note, in terms of coevolution,
that improving one link in such a production chain can highlight a need to improve other
links. More generally, as the stock of available technologies increases, the number of
possibilities for combining existing technologies into new technologies increases even
faster. In principle then (there are many barriers) it should not be surprising to see (fitful)
compound growth in the pool of available technologies; what we might call the stock of
cultural capital. Indeed, some writers, Hornell Hart being one, suggest that cultural
capital accumulates at a compound growth rate which itself increases over time.168
Initial conditions preclude-shape technology opportunities
Another principle for understanding (but not predicting) technological change is that
opportunities for introducing new technologies into “unoccupied niches” are highly
dependent on the configuration of the pre-existing environment, both natural and as
socially constructed. The phrase path dependency captures the idea that a society’s past
choices of technologies constrain the choices available to it (“structure the alternatives”)
in the present and the future. Historical geographer Robert Dodgshon (1998) lists the
types of constraints, what he calls historical bindings, which any new or replacement
technology will have to satisfy. His list includes natural laws, physical limits and logical,
technological, economic, ethical, psychological, cultural and political constraints.169
The importance of such initial conditions is well-evidenced by Jared Diamond’s
explanation of how cultures evolved differently in different regions according to the
possibilities in each for domesticating local plants and animals. Thus, early Eurasians
had access to plants and animals that were intrinsically susceptible to domestication, but
this was less so in the Americas and even less so again in Australia. While Australian
Aboriginals had little in the way of domesticable species available to them, Andean
farmers could build a food production system around five local species: llama, alpaca,
guinea pig, potatoes, and a grain crop, quinoa.170
While the specifics of new technologies are unpredictable, can anything be said about
what sorts of initial conditions are particularly likely to evoke new technologies?
Certainly there is little to suggest, prior to the Common Era at least, that the idea of proactively seeking to improve existing technologies was part of people’s thinking. The first
exceptions to such thinking may have come in areas which had already accumulated a
Brian Arthur book on combinatorial technologies
Hart, H (1959) Social Theory and Social Change, in Gross,
Gross L., editor (1959
1959 Symposium
on Sociological Theory Harper and Row Publishers, New York
169 Dodgshon 1998
170 Diamond
long visible history of technological change; the family of warfare technologies which
had been evolving since Neolithic times, is a good example.
More reactively, "Necessity is the mother of invention," as the saying goes. Initial
conditions which include threats to the ongoing smooth operation of an established
society seem particularly likely to trigger innovative responses in material, social,
communicative or cognitive technologies. The improvement in cognitive technologies in
the chaotic times at the end of the Bronze Age is one dramatic example. So indeed are
the Neolithic and Urban revolutions themselves.
Exhaustion of a widely-used resource has ever been a common challenge to existing
technologies. Running out of timber or building stone or, because of population growth,
out of habitable land are examples which get cited. As one particular pattern of human
exploitation of the environment began to encounter difficulties, thanks to exhaustion of
one or another key resource, human ingenuity had to find new ways to live, acquiring
new supplies by trade or war or by finding replacement technologies. From a dissipative
systems perspective, this is self-reorganisation.
Note that if a society has reached its capacity to acquire and use a particular form of
energy, a new technology which uses that form of energy can only be taken up if the use
of an existing technology processing that energy form is discontinued. The need to reallocate a fixed labour force if a new form of social organisation is to be implemented is a
good example. In more recent times, of course, many such re-allocations are made
through markets. A corollary to this re-allocation principle is that technology
development does tend to follow an economising principle, namely, to use as few
resources as possible to satisfy society’s needs, particularly those in limited supply.171
Technologies come and go
Why do technologies disappear? One reason has just been given but basically it has to be
because the niches (needs) they are filling disappear or their niches can be better filled by
other means. Weapons provide good examples of both processes. Sometimes one can
track a technology as it is being adapted to a changing niche till, at some arbitrary point,
it ‘disappears’ by morphing into a new technology. Sometimes there is genuine
coevolution between the niche and the technology; pot-making is one example, writing is
And, between birth and death, why do technologies persist? A promising new technology
is not taken up rapidly unless it is imposed from above as may happen in a stratified
society. Otherwise, it diffuses through and eventually saturates its niche as more people
learn of, become aware of, its utility. And when it does disappear, it is more likely to
fade away than vanish overnight; unless of course the society in which it is embedded
Lenski p 33
suffers a collapse. Like many diffusion processes, the rates at which technologies spread
tend to follow logistic or S-shaped curves, ie slowly at first, then rapidly, then slowly
again. Truly fundamental technologies like language and writing seem destined to persist
as long as their parent societies persist. More generally, new communication
technologies have a special potential to increase the diffusion rates of other types of
In a general way it is inertia, society’s tendency to resist change, which slows both the
rise and fall of an emerging technology. Robert Dodgshon gives several examples.172
The physical use of space in the past (eg structures erected, forests cleared) raises barriers
against and reshapes opportunities for future change. His second example is institutional
inertia. The standard analysis of institutional change sees ageing institutions becoming
trapped in a performance crisis until a political crisis shifts the balance of power in a way
which allows a radical overhaul of the ‘rules of the game.’173 Dodgshon’s third example
is ‘knowledge inertia’. Societies transmit information in the form of cultural norms (how
to behave, what recipes to use) from generation to generation and while there is a degree
of selection and novelty in what is passed on, most is handed down unchanged.
Inertia is not necessarily irrational. For example, ‘lock in’ is the name given to the
situation where an institution or organisation recognises that a new goal-seeking strategy
would be more cost-effective than current strategy (equals initial conditions) if it were not
for the investment cost involved in switching to the alternative. And, as suggested earlier
(Chapter 6??) risk of failure is another reason for inertia. For example, in hunter-gatherer
societies operating near survival thresholds (eg the end of the last ice age), technostasis is
the norm, ie the technology suite neither expands nor contracts. Why? The penalty for
committing to a new technology which might subsequently fail is too high.
The obverse of inertia is stability. When technologies persist for a long time, they provide
conditions, a nurturing environment, under which less stable technologies can evolve and
adapt to the enduring technology. Adherents to a cultural materialist view of society are
‘infrastructure determinists’ who suggest that the entire structure (organisation) of any
socio-cultural system rests on the way the society exploits its environment to meet the
biological and psychological needs of the population.174 That is, the (slow-changing)
mode of production determines the forms of families, collectives and other group
structures which in turn determine the behavioural and cognitive superstructure (social
and cognitive technologies) of society. Infrastructure is given this leading role because it
reflects the way a society adapts to its environment to meet basic needs---society’s
primary task. Group structure and mental and cultural superstructure must necessarily
adapt to be compatible with the ‘given’ infrastructure (our values depend on the age in
which we live). There is a clear debt in this thinking to Marx's basic idea that social life
Dodgshon 1998
(Visser and Hemerijck 1997: 53).
174 (Elwell 1991, Harris 1979)
is shaped by the way people engage nature through production and that the mode of
material production nurtures the forces which will guide social alignments such as class.
Cultural materialists nonetheless view societies as very stable systems with most changes
in structural, infrastructural or superstructural technologies being resisted and dampened
elsewhere in the system. Most successful social changes start with a mutual change in
both the production system and its environment. Elwell (1991: 11) claims that many of
these reconfigurations have been changes that extract more energy from the environment,
particularly where this favours the wellbeing of elite groups. Intensification of the
production system in this way leads eventually to some form of environmental depletion
and then to either a sudden collapse of the cultural system or a shift to a new mode of
production. If the culture shifts successfully, intensification starts all over again.
Fernand Braudel, the great French historian, had a comparable hierarchical view of social
change. He saw geography as the enduring environment within which layers of
institutional and psychological structures emerged and remained stable, often for
generations, before crumbling away.175 It is a view which equates with Eric Fromm’s
aforementioned [[??]] observation, that a society’s social character will change readily to
be compatible with its production system.176
Confliction and co-operation have long shaped the technology-mix
Confliction and co-operation are pervasive behaviours in primate society (societies).
Both can be regarded as ‘umbrella’ strategies (macro-technologies?) under which
numerous social technologies for stabilising and/or expanding energy flows have
evolved. Co-operation entails people working together to one end (eg, a hunting party)
and conflict entails people trying to thwart an other’s behaviour (eg, war). Both can be
traced back to the primate trait of living in groups, each occupying a more-or-less fixed
territory. This is, in several ways, an energy-efficient form of social organisation: being
familiar with a territory means more efficient food-gathering and confers a knowledge of
its danger spots. Living in groups, among other advantages, allows food-sharing, an early
form of co-operation. Conversely, as an evolved ‘technology’ which differently helps to
maintain this form of social organisation, primate groups attempt to aggressively expel
trespassers, particularly of their own species---an early form of conflict. Aggression is
behaviour intended to threaten or inflict physical injury on another. In tribal societies
aggression is channelled and limited by customs rules, taboos etc. It is further limited by
the weapons available. Wesson [[??]] makes the observation that, in tribal society, most
aggression is initiated at the group level and most individuals simply conform, ie
individuals are not particularly aggressive.
Braudel, Fernand (1972) The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age
of Philip II, (2 volumes) vol. 1. trans. S. Reynolds, London, Collins. p16f
(Berger and Luckman p 165) Fromm ref Little Albert?
By late Pleistocene times, aided by language as a co-ordination technology, huntergatherer groups had acquired well-developed social technologies for protecting and
exploiting ‘the leverage of collective action’ within the group and, to some extent,
between groups (eg, inter-marriage, trade). Within the group, behaviour would have been
regulated by rules of co-operative conduct (eg gift exchange) which were partly
instinctual and partly learned. Co-operation is best thought of as a strategy for
amplifying the benefits of what can be achieved by individuals acting alone. Pooling of
muscle-power, food, memory and artefacts are examples relevant to a tribal society. The
kinship system can be thought of as a technology which, by creating an extended family,
secures everybody’s co-operation.
But, if it is to survive, co-operation has to be monitored to ensure that its dividends are
fairly distributed. Co-operation based on direct reciprocity (immediate mutual aid)
presumably evolved at some stage into a memory-dependent system of indirect
reciprocity where co-operative behaviour could be legitimately rewarded at a later time
and by people who had not benefited directly from the initial altruism. Indirect
reciprocity is clearly an efficient rationale for co-operation but how, or if, it could have
evolved through natural selection is a matter of some debate.
The role of aggression and hostility within the group is mainly to establish hierarchical
standings and to protect the male-female pairing relationship, both behaviours which can
be argued to have adaptive value. Having a leader is the extent of hierarchical
organisation in tribal groups. A group with a courageous, skilled and aggressive leader
stands to multiply and gain the security of greater numbers and a larger territory at the
expense of other groups. Conversely, the efficiency of hunting and gathering for
acquiring food declines beyond a certain group size. Tribal groups therefore tend to have
upper and lower limits on their size and much of our species’ social behaviour is adapted
to living in groups of, say, less than a hundred where all are known to each other.
The important conclusion emerging here is that a code governing co-operative behaviour
and a code governing confliction (some would call it competition) were the twin
foundations of tribal and inter-tribal social organisation. Indeed, both can be seen as
aspects of an even higher-level strategy, namely inter-dependent decision-making. The
further genetic role of these codes was in maintaining the system of small isolated groups
which has been an ideal setting for rapid biological evolution. Both of these codes are
elaborately adapted to the hunting and gathering mode of food production which
hominids have followed for 99% of their history.
But in the Holocene era, starting with a switch in the mode of food production to herding
and cropping, these deeply engrained, largely unconscious, behaviour codes---probably
what most people mean by ‘human nature’---were increasingly required to guide
behaviour in circumstances under which they had not evolved. As food surpluses per
field worker increased, first under village agriculture and then within the irrigation
7civilisations, niches were created for both conflictual and co-operative strategies, both
within and between societies.
While surpluses meant increased possibilities for communities to co-operate with each
other through trade, stored food surpluses also became a new primary energy source for
marauders. Here was a novel way of extracting energy from the environment, one that
yielded the human energy of slaves as well as food. Marauding was a conflictual
technology which evoked countervailing technologies such as improved weaponry, static
defences, larger settlements and, in time, standing armies. It was marauding which
evolved in time into inter-state and inter-empire warfare.
Simultaneously, the new surpluses were also evoking both co-operation and confliction
within the growing communities themselves. Surpluses allowed a division of labour and
skills between field workers and those who managed and protected the new production
systems. This division of labour was an important co-operative or co-ordinating
technology which allowed all participants to get more than they could alone or in smaller
groups. But, over time, what had originally been a reciprocal exchange tended to become
unbalanced with members of the management class accumulating more benefits than field
workers, including economic and political power. Despite the risk of killing the goose
that lays the golden eggs, it seems that once a group has obtained control over how
surplus energy is used it is unwilling to return to a more equitable co-operative
organisation of society.
By developing a suite of coercive, persuasive and belief-shaping technologies, ruling
elites were able to extract maximum energy surpluses from their domesticated majorities
for much of the Bronze Age. But while most people are accepting of authority in their
lives they also have a limit to their tolerance of inequality and there was a high, but little
recognised, level of resentment and revolt in many agrarian societies.177
Along with the invention by Bronze Age states of conquest and empire-building as a
technology for acquiring food and human energy (slaves) came the scaled-up use of
coercion to increase food production and to transfer maximal surpluses to the conquerors.
Diverse technologies for the prosecution of war and the management of colonies emerged
to support the use of conflict to secure energy supplies.
For further understanding of the roles of confliction and co-operation in shaping
technology mixes across Eurasia in the millennia before the Common Era, it is helpful to
think of H. sapiens as organised into pseudospecies, more commonly in conflict with
each other than co-operating. Thus warring and trading states and empires were behaving
as pseudospecies and, within individual states, powerful ruling classes and the masses
they dominated also functioned as pseudospecies. Notwithstanding the waste and misery
of all this, we have here a system of social organisation which was stable (ie persisted)
for most of the Bronze Age. It was only for a brief time, starting with the axial age
religions and limited democracy in the Greek city states, that post-tribal humans moved a
(Richerson and Boyd (1998, 1999) p227). Le Blanc 2003
small way past seeing societies as naturally divided into all-powerful rulers and masses
with minimal rights.
Once a society has split into pseudospecies---groups with divergent interests---the
tendency is for each pseudospecies to develop social, material etc technologies which
further its own interests and, where they can, to suppress technologies which threaten
those interests. For example, while new material technologies proliferated in the
egalitarian societies of the early stages of the Neolithic revolution such innovations were
quite rare for much of the Bronze Age. Given a surplus of raw human energy (slaves and
serfs) in the irrigation civilisations, it was not in the rulers’ interests to encourage
unsettling innovations which might have reduced workloads for food producers. On the
contrary, social technologies for absorbing labour, building monumental structures for
example, were developed. Such projects, like many social technologies are
simultaneously co-operative (people working to a common end) and conflictual
(enforcing co-operation). But whether such conceptualisations were consciously
recognised at the time seems doubtful.
A basic framework for understanding eco-cultural evolution can now be drawn together.
It starts from a recognition that humans have long been organised hierarchically into
‘larger’ social groupings, each of which is made up of multiple ‘smaller’ groupings; and
each smaller grouping is further divisible into even smaller groupings. Discussion above
was limited to larger groupings called states-empires and smaller groupings of workers
and elites within states, but could have been extended to a consideration of various
categories of workers and elites or, indeed, to families and individuals.
Humans are all one species we know, but calling each grouping, large or small, a
pseudospecies captures the idea that groups, as well as independently pursuing their
members’ security and quality of life, interact co-operatively and conflictually with other
groups of not too dissimilar size and energy flows---just like species in canonical
ecosystems. The result has been a kaleidoscopic history of groupings which, throughout
the portion of the Holocene of present interest, have stagnated, stabilised, grown,
regressed, branched, amalgamated etc. Each pseudospecies persists for a time through the
repeated use of a mix of technologies (material, social, cognitive, communicative) which
more-or-less satisfies their material, social and psychological needs.
In parallel, each pseudospecies’ technology-mix keeps evolving (sometimes by
acquisition, sometimes by an endogenous process of variation and selective retention) as
it attempts to adapt to the vagaries of the natural environment and to the threats and
opportunities of its broader social environment as constituted by other pseudospecies.
While we have canvassed a wide range of factors (energetics, inertia, initial conditions…)
which play a part in determining what technologies, if any, might emerge in specific
situations, none stand out as being strongly predictive of what will eventuate. The best
we can say is that, retrospectively, one should be able to invoke these factors to plausibly
explain particular innovations. Putting this more positively, a knowledge of their
historical context is needed to understand and be unsurprised by contemporary events.
Coevolution of pseudospecies
How important is coevolution (mutual adaptation) between pseudospecies in this abstract
descriptive model of eco-cultural evolution? Is there pattern in the way that relations
between pseudospecies evolve over time? As above, it is difficult to predict what will
happen in specific situations but, provided that two (or more) interacting pseudospecies
are embedded in a larger environment where energy flows are relatively stable, you
would at least expect any ongoing interactions between those pseudospecies to ‘grope’
towards more co-ordination. And that will be so even when one has much more social
(military, political etc) power than the other.
Being co-ordinated means that each pseudospecies has standardised, perhaps formulaic,
responses to particular behaviours on the part of the other.178 Because standardised
behaviours (habits) are energy-conserving, even tacit co-ordination is a form of cooperation. Nor is co-ordination necessarily incompatible with conflictual relations. Even
wars are loosely governed by rules which limit damage. Pseudospecies whose core
behaviours are closely co-ordinated tend to become inextricably interdependent and
therefore stand to be significantly disrupted by disturbances to their inter-relationships.
This is the downside of too much co-ordination; unforeseen disturbances readily threaten
stability. Note the parallel to the short-sightedness of natural selection in biological
evolution. In such situations, if decision-making were to be centralised under one
controlling agent, individual pseudospecies, while losing some of their identity, might be
protected from their own inflexibility. For example, if two warring states are integrated
into a larger empire, they will be precluded from tit-for-tat war and given the opportunity
to interact more productively. New forms of co-ordinated and centralised behaviour are
discovered by experiment, either purposeful or playful. When such experiments produce
‘improved’ behaviours, these are retained---a process of trial and success. Societies stand
to add a new hierarchical level each time newly centralised groupings of pseudospecies
begin another round of co-ordination.
A sufficient set of ideas?
In this chapter we have reviewed, briefly and patchily, the eco-cultural evolution of
human societies in Eurasia from the time of the hunter-gatherers who walked out of the
last ice age through to the increasingly conscious civilisations that appeared in the wake
of the Bronze Age in the centuries prior to the Common Era. This ten thousand year
period saw three fundamental cultural shifts. One was the shift by Neolithic village
communities to using domesticated plants and animals as their primary energy sources.
The second, based on the achievement of regional food surpluses, was the further shift to
a pattern of stratified urban societies in which surpluses were used to support populations
Berger and Luckmann
of specialist workers, including priests and soldiers. Grafted onto this urban revolution
was the widespread use by urbanised states of warfare, colonisation and enslavement to
(it was hoped) secure, protect and enlarge their energy supplies.
The Bronze Age ended with the breakdown of what had become a shifting pattern of
warring empires due, maybe, to both natural causes (climate change, earthquakes?) and,
for what were still tribal minds, the unmanageable complexities of empire. The tribal
mind had failed to cope with what it had created and, in its place, built on two coevolving technologies of the most fundamental kind, there emerged the modern mind.
One was a form of writing which had symbols for vowels, a communicative technology
which could capture and store speech. The other was the self-aware reflective mind, a
cognitive technology embodying the skills to formulate and choose between alternative
ideas and courses of action. This was the third revolution, what I earlier called the
consciousness-cognition revolution. It was a revolution which strongly shaped the
cultures of the Greek and Roman empires while they lasted but had less impact
elsewhere. Nonetheless, the seeds of individualism had been sown, and sat quietly
through the Dark Ages, ready to sprout during the Renaissance Spring.
The question we end on now is whether the coevolutionary processes that have been
identified and developed as tools for explaining and understanding what happened to
human culture in the Holocene, prior to the Common Era, will suffice to explain and
understand cultural change thereafter. Our hypothesis is that the types of eco-cultural
evolutionary processes identified in the Holocene-to-date also outline the possibility
space within which those same processes could unfold in the Common Era. There is no
reason to suppose otherwise, even though it is true that the last 2000 years have seen
massive and accelerating changes in population, energy-materials use, environmental
impacts, human knowledge and relationships within and between pseudospecies.
Cultural capital, meaning stocks of material, social, cognitive and communicative
technologies has similarly grown. There have been revolutions galore including transport
revolutions, fuel revolutions, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the
electronics revolution, the computing revolution, political revolutions, values
Many of these changes have been surprising to those living through them. Others have
crept up on people. But, looking back, none are mysterious, not even consciousness if
one can accept this cognitive technology as an expression of increasing language skills.
A multiplicity of causal factors complicates understanding of some major changes and a
simple lack of information draws a veil over others. Notwithstanding, it has been
possible to tell a rich plausible story about eco-cultural evolution up to the common era.
As the next step towards building a practical understanding of the contemporary world,
and taking a similar approach, we turn now to an overview, brief and patchy still, of ecocultural evolution during the Common Era.
This chapter continues our selective cultural history of H. sapiens, the animal species
which, more than any other, has influenced the quantity of energy flowing through the
global ecosystem and the paths which those flows take (war, population growth,
monument building etc). The best single indicator of the complexity of any energydegrading system is the rate at which it processes free energy---as more and more energy
flows through a system, degrading and converting to other forms as it goes, additional
pathways made up of flow and storage structures are created and, usually, existing
pathways are restructured. In the case of the human ecosystem, such thermodynamic
changes come to be seen as cultural change-cultural evolution.179
Considering the human ecosystem as a whole, there has been a more-or-less monotonic
increase (ie no significant reversals) in the amount of energy it has captured and
processed in the last 12k years. Both the Neolithic and Urban revolutions can be viewed
as having been triggered by the adoption of new more-productive technologies for
acquiring food energy, technologies which appeared when the niches for previous
technologies disappeared or degraded. Both revolutions relied (largely) on human and
animal power to convert solar energy to food energy and both were accompanied by
significant coevolution between food production and social and other technologies. The
mid-Holocene’s third revolution, the consciousness-cognition revolution, flowered only
briefly in response to the failure of the ‘cannibalistic’ survival strategy of the Bronze
Now we look to understand an era in which non-biological energy sources start to play an
increasing part in powering cultural evolution. Good examples, energy-extraction
technologies which, over extended periods, have led to cascades of technology change
elsewhere and to a changing cast of pseudospecies, include:
Capturing wind energy using sailed vessels
Nils Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity says two descriptions of nature are
complementary when they are both true but cannot both be seen in the same experiment.
In quantum mechanics, the wave picture and the particle picture of an electron or photon
are complementary. Similarly, one can have a picture of cultural evolution couched in
thermodynamic terms or in behavioural terms. Both may be true but descriptions from
one perspective leave no room for the other perspective. But, as may be useful, one can
switch between perspectives; also each description constrains what the other can say.
Capturing the chemical energy contained in gunpowder
Capturing the chemical energy contained in fossil fuels
Of the biological sources of energy playing expanded roles in the Common Era (CE),
horse power stands out (perhaps camel power too?).
More generally, my guiding principle for reducing what I know of the enormous history
of the Common Era to an organised précis will be to try and identify trends, events
[breaks , discontinuities Braudel] and processes (e.g. population growth, new
technologies, human-made and natural disasters) which, on the back of trends in energy
use, appear to have had [[or to be having]] the greatest consequences for the well-being
of large numbers of people, either immediately or over time. Later, with the hope of
getting a better idea of what we need to understand about contemporary societies if we
are to pursue a social goal of ‘quality survival’, we will reflect on what has been selected.
Away, for we are ready to a man!
Our camels sniff the evening and are glad.
Lead on, O Master of the Caravan:
Lead on the Merchant-Princes of Bagdad.
Have we not Indian carpets dark as wine,
Turbans and sashes, gowns and bows and veils,
And broideries of intricate design,
And printed hangings in enormous bales?
We have rose-candy, we have spikenard,
Mastic and terebinth and oil and spice,
And such sweet jams meticulously jarred
As God's own Prophet eats in Paradise.
And we have manuscripts in peacock styles
By Ali of Damascus; we have swords
Engraved with storks and apes and crocodiles,
And heavy beaten necklaces, for Lords.
James Elroy Flecker
The Golden Journey to Samarkand
Trading networks
One of the Common Era’s first consequential cultural shifts was a sharp expansion in
long distance trade and communication between the four agricultural civilisations then
containing a majority of Eurasia’s (and hence the world’s) people, i.e. the Roman,
Parthian (Persian), Kushan and Han empires. Movements, particularly of luxury goods,
increased over both land and sea routes between east and west Eurasia. On land, the most
famous of these trade routes was the Silk Road which split to skirt north and south of the
hostile Tibetan Plateau. And at sea, ever-bigger sailing vessels plied the coastal waters of
South and East Asia, venturing in time into the Indian and Pacific oceans. The regular
seasonality of the north-south Monsoon winds was discovered some hundred years before
the Common Era. Sailing vessels powered by wind energy would eventually supplant the
technology of the pack animal (camels and dromedaries), and in the process change
power relationships (Who controls trade?) between maritime and non-maritime states.
The linking of Eurasia’s largest cities in a long-distance trading network brought material
benefits primarily to consumers of high-value low-volume goods, i.e. to ruling groups.
Trade is a technology which allows transport costs to be balanced against the benefits of
regional specialisation and the savings which come from producing a product on a large
scale. But that is only part of the story. Cities in the trading network became places
where populations could and did grow, consolidating a trend towards urbanisation which
continues to this day. Also, while trade provided the impetus, trade routes were
increasingly conduits for the spread of learning, technology recipes, religions, art, genes
and disease. Thus, an early consequence of this first drive towards a globalisation, a
single world-system, of commerce was epidemiological disaster as the separate disease
pools of each empire (Plague, smallpox, measles, syphilis) mingled together. For
example, drastic depopulation from disease in parts of the Roman empire contributed to
its disintegration. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell (476 CE), Buddhist
missionaries, originally from north India, had already spread their influence as far as
Japan and Java. Christianity too had spread, with the Roman empire, through Europe and
into Asia Minor where, in later centuries, Anatolia would become a shifting frontier
between Islamic forces and Christian forces of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman empire.
And, in India, Brahmanism and Hinduism were nurtured in the bosom of the Gupta
Northern invaders
In the fourth and fifth centuries CE incursions of nomadic peoples from central Asia,
possibly triggered by adverse climatic change, threw Eurasia’s empires---Chinese, Indian,
Persian and Roman---into disarray. The invaders were horse-riding pastoralists whose
winning military technology was the use of mounted archers; they were mostly
Mongoloids who spoke Turkish-family languages.
In Europe these nomad invaders were followed by Germanic invaders (Goths, Vandals,
Huns) from northern and central Europe, peoples who had never been part of the Roman
empire. For 1400 years from the sack and capture of Rome in 410 CE, Europe was a
cauldron of constant war, pestilence and famine. Nonetheless, while the Goths sacked
Rome, they respected and protected the Church which thereafter survived, albeit as a
spiritually lifeless, dogmatic institution. The Western Roman empire was replaced by
smaller states, more self-sufficient but unstable and poorly coordinated; many with
German kings. Urban populations shrank as people returned to village life. Indicatively,
by the beginning of the sixth century, the numerous copper mines of western Europe had
shut down, not to reopen till the tenth century. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, seems
not to have been made again till the 15th century.180 Sea-trade in the Mediterranean
world, once it lost Rome’s protection, was destroyed by pirates.
Without Roman legions to protect them, local populations across Europe turned to a
feudal system of governance in which warlords and their mounted soldiers gave
protection in exchange for loyalty and a life as a serf. Physical security and a subsistence
existence were acquired at the price of individual freedom. Frightened and ignorant
people submitted to the arbitrary and collusive authority of ‘divinely ordained’ monarchs,
feudal lords, priests and a Pope whose infallibility was already being discussed.
Economically, land was the basis of wealth. Socially, heredity was the determinant of
position and opportunity. Intellectually, theological doctrine was the sole arbiter of truth.
Greek ideas such as democracy and freedom of thought were suppressed by forces of
religious and political absolutism, and would not re-emerge until the 15th century.
Europe’s ‘dark ages’ had arrived.
In 535 CE, atmospheric dust and debris from a major natural event, perhaps a comet or
asteroid, but most probably the eruption of Mt Krakatau in the Sunda strait, initiated
several years of low temperatures and reduced sunlight. This led to crop failures around
the world, followed by some decades of climatic instability,181 Plague (542 CE), droughts
and floods which placed further pressures on social organisation and this period saw the
collapse of societies beyond Europe, including the major civilizations of South-East Asia
and South America. More generally, the 6th century, particularly after 535 CE, was a
period of extensive political reorganisation right across Eurasia, eg the collapse of the
southern Chinese empire during this time led to the consolidation of northern and
southern China into a single empire, while the Indian Gupta empire disintegrated in the
face of invasions from central Asia.
Rise of Islam
In the century after the death in 632 CE of Mohammed, prophet of Islam, conquering
armies from the Arabian Peninsula took their new religion as far west as Spain (711 CE)
and as far east as northern India (713 CE). In Europe, classical learning now survived
only in a Spain where Arabs (and North African Muslims) stayed to rule for nearly 800
years. The Arabs had absorbed Greek culture when they overran Egypt and they
presently established major schools and academies at Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo,
Damascus, Toledo and Seville. For some hundreds of years Muslim dynasties struggled
to conquer the Byzantine empire, succeeding when, marking the rebirth of the Ottoman
empire, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Joseph Tainter argues that the
(White P86).
(Keys 1999)
Byzantine empire survived as long as it did by simplifying---not complexifying as Rome
did---the organisation of its army, government and economy.182
Europe reorganises
Western Europe, in a period of increasing political integration under Frankish and
Carolingian monarchies, began to recover from its dark ages in the eighth and ninth
centuries. Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768-814 CE, protected the papacy and,
in time, gained legendary stature as ‘the father of Europe.’ His reign witnessed a shift in
the centre of European civilisation from the Mediterranean to the plains of northern
Europe, a shift that was later boosted by the occurrence of a ‘medieval warm period’ and
by several new technologies. Dating of the medieval warm period is contentious but a
reasonable estimate is that there was a core period from 950-1100 CE within a longer
period of 900-1300 CE. One of the new technologies was a three-field rotation system
which, through an understanding of how to exploit the Spring rains of northern Europe,
almost doubled crop yields. Another was the wheeled plough. And then, in the late
ninth-early tenth centuries came three inventions for exploiting the strength of the horse--the horse-collar, the tandem harness and the horseshoe---which, taken together, to quote
Leslie White (1940), ‘suddenly gave Europe a new supply of non-human power, at no
increase of expense or labour.’ These inventions did for the eleventh and twelfth
centuries what the steam-engine did for the nineteenth century. Horse power plus an
increasingly widespread use of windmills and water-driven mills, allowed Western
Europe to be, probably, the first-ever society to significantly replace human energy with
non-human energy. Perhaps it was Europe’s new energy surpluses which fuelled its
‘twelfth century renaissance,’ a spectrum of developments in art, architecture, vernacular
literature, law, philosophy, trading guilds, universities etc. For example, as early as 1210
CE theologians and natural philosophers at the illustrious University of Paris were
debating the clash between revelatory knowledge and, following Aristotle, knowledge
derived from the senses.183
Wind-powered trade
Elsewhere, from the eighth century, as Europe began to reorganise, a vibrant and
dynamic Islamic culture entered a ‘golden age,’ Sinic civilization spread through Korea
and Japan, and Indic civilization spread through southern Asia. By 1000 CE, a complex
network of trading routes linked the centres of manufacturing production in the Middle
East, China, India, and South-East Asia to each other and to underdeveloped suppliers of
raw materials in Russia and Europe.184 It was probably Arabs who, in the ninth century,
invented the lateen sail which allowed tacking against the wind, extended traders’
Energy and Sociopolitical Collapse, Encyclopedia of Energy, 2004, Elsevier, 529-543
Stephen Gaukroger, whose book The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the
Shaping of Modernity, 1210 -1685 is published by Oxford University Press. Details on our
184 (Goldstone 1998).
capacity to make sea voyages and allowed crew sizes to be reduced. The lateen was the
forerunner of the fore-and-aft-rigs which would be the technologies behind the great ages
of sail yet to come. By 950 CE the Mediterranean was virtually a ‘Muslim lake.’
Spurred on by the Song-dynasty government and a rich merchant class, China was at the
heart of this reinvigorated maritime trading system. Drugs, aromatics, textiles, base and
precious metals were imported and exported. Ceramics, paper and prints were major
export and sulphur for making gunpowder a major import. Some important exports were
products of government monopolies. Foreign and domestic traders were taxed, as were
their ocean-going ships. Duties were levied on imports. In a drive to monetise the
Chinese economy, large quantities of copper coins were minted. Thomas Crump
describes money as, after language, humanity’s second most important invention!185
Metaphorically, it stores skill and labour and also translates one skill into another.
China’s domination of global maritime trade continued even as, following the Song
dynasty, it became a khanate (sub-division) of the Mongol Empire. The Yuan dynasty
(1271-1368) was established by ethnic Mongols under Kublai Khan. In the 14th and 15th
centuries China sent forth the largest ships and greatest fleets the world had ever seen,
voyaging from the Arctic to the coast of Africa. Sending ships to London was well
within China’s technological capacities but after a few voyages Chinese shipping pulled
back behind the Indian Ocean. For them, there was nothing tradable in Africa, and little
in Europe. Nor was the Pacific of economic interest. Goods of value came mainly from
the Middle East and India as they had for hundreds of years. Fortuitously, the monsoon
winds in East Asia blow down the China coast and east from India, and then reverse with
the shift of the seasons. This meant that ships from China, India and the Arab world
could converge on Malacca and Aceh in south-east Asia, exchange cargoes there and sail
home on favourable winds. From Korea and Japan to the Philippines, Chinese merchants
built up a thriving maritime trade which lasted well into 19th century.
The Islamic Empire
The ‘golden age’ of Islamic culture which began in the eighth century was a period in
which the Islamic Empire, under the Abbasid Caliphate, not only grew to be the largest
the world had yet seen but came to be the unchallenged world-laboratory for
developments in science, philosophy, medicine and education. By 900 CE there were
hundreds of shops employing scribes and book-binders in Baghdad, capital of the empire.
It was an empire in which political control and cultural-religious influence followed the
new dominance of Muslim over Chinese merchants along African-Arabian and ArabianAsian trade routes. A widely-accepted Islamic currency was created. To this day,
western Africa and south-east Asia have large Muslim populations. Internally too,
political power went with trading success rather than with land ownership. This was very
much an urban civilisation. Already destabilised by a procession of crusading Christian
Crump t Man and his kind : an introduction to social anthropology p73..
armies from Europe (1095-1291) and by declining crop yields (due to soil salinisation),
the empire’s golden age came to an end when a Mongol Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258.
The Mongols
Who were these Mongols who conquered most of the Islamic empire as well as Song
China? Indeed, their spectacularly successful cavalry also conquered much of Russia and
eastern Europe. With horses in reserve, a Mongol army could advance 60-70 miles in a
day. Driven by drought probably, they emerged from central Asia under the leadership of
Genghis Khan in 1206 CE and by 1300 CE controlled most of the world’s major cities.
In 1405 CE, their empire held sway over more than 100 million people and covered
almost a quarter of Earth's total land area---from the Pacific to the Black Sea and from
Siberia to near-India. And by 1502 it had gone. The khanates into which it had been
sub-divided collapsed or were variously defeated and absorbed by neighbouring states.
As much as anything it was Bubonic Plague (erupting in 1346) which was responsible for
this rapid decline, a decline which included the closure of the great overland trade routes.
Also, the spread of hand-held firearms allowed the once invincible mounted nomads to be
repulsed. Remaining Mongol populations in the former eastern khanates became
Buddhists and those in the western Khanates became Muslims.
Gunpowder weapons had been in regular use in China from the early tenth century and
their use had spread across Eurasia into Europe by the early 13th century. Cannon were
regularly used in sieges of castles and cities from the early 14th century. The Ottoman
Turks used large cannon at the final siege of Constantinople in 1453. Indeed, a factor in
the decline of feudalism was that the castles of feudal lords were henceforth only
temporary refuges. Small arms evolved rapidly from 1300 and by 1600 gunpowder
weapons had revolutionised armies and warfare (eg, reduced the role of cavalry) and an
‘arms race’ to acquire superior weaponry had taken off.
Islam’s ‘post-Mongol’ empires
With the collapse of Mongol administration of the Islamic world in the 14th and 15th
centuries, three new Islamic empires began forming across Asia: the Ottoman Empire in
Asia Minor, the Safavid Empire in Persia, and the Mughal Empire in India. Together,
these ‘post-Mongol, post-plague’ formations became the vehicle which carried the
Islamic world from medieval to early modern times.
By 1529, the Ottoman Empire, first formed in the early 14th century, had expanded into
Europe as far as the gates of Vienna. And in 1535, by taking Baghdad from the Safavid
Persians, the Ottomans gained naval access to the Persian Gulf. One of the constraints on
Ottoman expansion into the Indian Ocean was the difficulty of arranging supplies of
naval timber for the Basra shipyard, which had to import suitable wood down the
Euphrates from Anatolia. The Empire was already a dominant naval force in the
Mediterranean and remained so until beaten at sea by the Holy League coalition in 1571.
The Empire reached its peak influence around 1600, and then gradually declined, due to
both internal disorganisation and to pressures from its enemies in Asia and Europe (eg the
battle of Vienna in 1683). Economically, a huge influx of Spanish silver from the New
World caused a sharp devaluation of the Ottoman currency and rampant inflation.
Nevertheless, the empire survived till disbanded at the end of the First World War.
Present-day Turkey is the remnant state.
The Safavid Empire started as a Shi’ite religious community which acquired the political
and military strength to split from the Ottoman (Sunni) Empire in 1501. Its initial wealth
came from its position on east-west trade routes but, to the Persians’ disadvantage, these
routes shifted in the 17th century. The Persians had to fight to protect their empire
(something larger than present-day Iran) not only from the Ottomans but from their other
Sunni neighbour, the Mughal Empire, and, from the north, Russians and Uzbeks. In 1722
the Safavid Empire fell to Afghan invaders. Out of its remnants grew the present-day
theocratic state of Iran.
Mughal is the Persian word for Mongol. The Mughal Empire was established by
descendants of Ghengis Khan in 1526 and, at the height of its power, around 1700, it
controlled most of the Indian subcontinent and parts of what is now Afghanistan. The
tolerance of its rulers towards the majority Hindu religion helped keep the peace. But,
like the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, the Mughal Empire's power eventually declined,
and it was absorbed by the expansion of the British Empire in India in the mid-19th
Early Renaissance
From the twelfth century onwards, European feudalism began to decline and, by the late
fourteenth century, following the ravages of the Black Death, was no longer a political
and social force. Towns and cities, with their craft guilds and tradespeople, were growing
in economic-political power and the lord-serf relationship was giving way to a monarchsubject relationship. The wool trade was becoming one important stimulus to
development. But, of most significance here, a number of Italian cities (especially
Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples) began to grow very rich in the late twelfth-thirteenth
centuries through being intermediaries and bankers to the trade, particularly spices,
between central Europe and the Middle East. Wealth helped these cities, together with
their hinterlands, acquire the status of autonomous city-states and, over the fourteenth,
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Italy’s commercially active city-states were at the centre
of a further revitalisation (renaissance) of European culture. Perhaps we can think of the
Renaissance as beginning in the early 14th century with the publication of Dante’s The
Divine Comedy, possibly the greatest adventure story of all time? Italy’s city-states
competed with each other to be patrons of art, literature and philosophy and to establish
academies for humanistic education.
But the early 14th century was also a calamitous time for Europe. The medieval warm
period, a part-explanation for several previous centuries of population growth, was
coming to an end. Winters were harsher, crop yields were down, grain prices soared and
famine and war pruned populations heavily. Self-serving monarchs and callous
landowners accentuated a general decline in living standards. And then came a pandemic
of Bubonic Plague, a fatal disease spread by fleas which live on rats and humans. It
started in Asia and travelled to Europe in rat-infested Italian ships trading goods across
the Mediterranean. The ‘Black Death,’ as it was known, reached England in 1348 and by
1351 had killed over a million people, one-third of Europe's already malnourished and
susceptible population. Farm-labour shortages then further reduced food supplies.
It was not till the late 14th century that political order and levels of trading activities
began to recover, not only in Europe but in Eurasia generally. Food became increasingly
plentiful. In Europe, a trend towards developing strong stable monarchies became
noticeable eg in England, France, Netherlands and Belgium as well as Spain and
Portugal. A dynastic monarchy is a social technology with the potential to reduce
succession tensions, inspire public obedience on the grounds that kings are divinely
appointed and, through marital unions, create larger kingdoms.
The essence of Renaissance humanism was its rejection of the Church’s obsession with
the afterlife and its model of humans as poor sinful creatures whose only hope was to
follow God’s constraining and tyrannical edicts. Renaissance humanism preached
confidence in people’s ability to find the springs of right action within themselves. Its
rejection of authoritarianism extended to looking at the natural world through one’s own
eyes (eg Leonardo, Vesalius), a perspective which we now recognise as scientific.
Following the capture of Constantinople in 1453, there was an exodus of Greek scholars
to Italy, carrying a knowledge of Greek literature and other learning which the West had
long lost; in part, the Renaissance blossomed in Italy because it was near Greece and had
inherited Greek-influenced Roman traditions. Most importantly, the Renaissance had
rediscovered the self-awareness and speculative capacity which had emerged with the
great religions and in classical Greece---what I earlier called the cognition-consciousness
revolution. Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1580) are, arguably, still unsurpassed as an
example of a man finding self-knowledge. As is so often the case in cultural evolution,
ideas which had been long dormant came to life when conditions suited.
However, it was in Germany rather than Italy that a technology emerged which, fuelled
by the Renaissance spirit, would set off a cultural explosion, a period of rapid,
accelerating cultural evolution, across Europe and then the world. In 1436 Johannes
Gutenberg combined a number of pre-existing technologies (the wine press, paper, ink,
replaceable wooden or metal letters) to produce the first (debatably) printing press. By
1501 there were 1000 printing shops in Europe, which had produced 35,000 titles and 20
million copies of books, almanacs etc.
The great Dutch scholar Erasmus re-translated the New Testament in 1516 and within a
year Martin Luther had initiated the Protestant Reformation. As bibles tumbled from the
presses, ordinary people could, for the first time, study the Christian story for themselves.
The market for books in languages other than Latin boomed and this had the side-effect
of fostering feelings of regional unity and nationalism. People were now able to read, for
example, the works of the literary giants of the Renaissance---England’s Shakespeare,
Spain’s Cervantes and France’s Rabelais. Nationalism did begin replacing religion as
people’s primary loyalty but, notwithstanding, religious bigotry and zeal would prove to
be as important as trading rights and territorial ambitions in driving centuries of warfare
between Europe’s emerging nation-states, e.g. Protestant England versus Catholic France,
Protestant Netherlands versus Catholic Spain.
There is another quite different way in which the invention of printing transformed the
human mind. It can be argued that the invention of printing was also the invention of
standardisation, an idea, a metatechnology (a technology for implementing other
technologies), which is fundamental to the practice, inter alia, of bureaucratic
organisation, industrial capitalism, scientific research, law, education and commerce.
Like space and time, standardisation, the explicit adoption of and commitment to
behavioural norms, is one of those generic ideas which are so big that, paradoxically, they
are all but invisible. It is the background technology which allows people to coordinate
with each other.
Book printing was the world’s first mass production process. It is a process in which
standardised inputs are fed through a repetitive operation to produce standardised outputs.
Henry Ford was a copycat! More than this, as books were produced in increasing
numbers they became more standardised, more like each other with respect to page
layout, letter shapes, spelling, punctuation and word meanings. This loss in variety vis-àvis the idiosyncrasies of manuscripts gave books a relatively greater usability.
In general, standardisation is a metatechnology which reduces the costs of
communicating and implementing recipes for social, cognitive and material technologies.
Provided the technology user understands the relevant standards, it does this by
increasing his/her prior confidence as to what a recipe (really) means and in the likely
qualities of the product. Once shown the way, the Renaissance mindset was to embrace
standardisation, e.g. shipbuilding in 16th century Venice . It is not too much to say that,
from the Renaissance to the 21st century, it has been standardisation, including
standardised money, which has allowed transactions and coordination between the
specialist sectors of a multi-sectoral economy to take place.
Once they could be powered by coal and oil, standardised industrial technologies
replaced, more than replaced, man and beast. Social organisation and values tagged along
behind as Marx said they would. But the knowledge to keep the whole rambunctious
show on the road was book knowledge, transmitted and updated from one generation to
the next.
The rise and decline of Spain and Portugal
From the early 15th century until the early 17th century ships from several European
countries on the Atlantic seaboard, traversed the world in search of new trading routes,
new trading partners and particular trading goods, notably bullion and spices. In the
process, they encountered peoples and lands previously unknown to them. Their initial
goal, profit, was later expanded to variously include conquest, settlement and conversion
of the heathen.
Portugal, resource-poor and small, but a nation with a long-established sea trade into
northern Europe, led Europe’s attempts to participate in a revitalised world economy, one
dominated by the Ottoman and Chinese empires. Europe’s problem was that its traders,
particularly after 1453, were discouraged (eg by taxes) from using established land and
sea trading routes to India, East Asia and South-East Asia. The Portuguese set out to find
their own alternative sea route to India and beyond, namely a route circumnavigating the
African continent.
Initially (c.1419) they explored some Atlantic islands and the west coast of Africa, the
latter being where they established a profitable trade in slaves, gold, ivory, ebony and
exotica. And then, in 1497, a Portuguese fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed up
the east coast of Africa and crossed the Indian Ocean to India. The long-distance sailing
ships needed for such ventures were carracks and caravels, developed in Iberia (Portugal
plus Spain) but drawing on Arab design features such as the lateen sail. They were
seaworthy but small in comparison with the nine-masted junks of the Chinese merchant
fleet of the time. And so began a Portuguese empire which would be largely financed by
the spice trade. Around 1522, argues Peter Trickett, the Portuguese may even have been
the first Europeans to discover Australia (and New Zealand), charting the east coast and
probably more.186 By 1550 the Portuguese had 50 ports and forts in Asia and South
America, many of which would become colonies in the 19th century; and several of which
were at strategic choke points (Aden, Hormuz, Malacca) in the global shipping network.
As the 16th century progressed, the Portuguese navy increasingly dominated the Ottoman
navy, and hence the spice trade, in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and around
modern-day Indonesia’s Spice Islands.
By 1492 Christian forces had recaptured the last of the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic
states there and Spain became free to belatedly begin competing with Portugal for a share
of the spice trade. Under the sponsorship of the Spanish Crown, Christopher Columbus
sailed west to (unintentionally) become the first (?) European to discover the ‘new world’
of the Americas. By 1533 the Spaniards, aided by guns, horses and disease, had
subjugated the floundering Aztec and Inca empires and by 1549 sugar plantations,
worked by slaves, had been established in Brazil by the Portuguese. Over several
centuries, Spain extracted enormous quantities of silver from its growing American
possessions, sufficient to finance a grand empire (and, as mentioned, destabilise the
Ottoman Empire’s currency in the process). It was an empire further boosted by Spain’s
annexure of an over-extended Portugal and its possessions from 1580 to 1640. In 1571, it
was a Spanish-led fleet which annihilated the Ottoman fleet at the battle of Lepanto and
ended Ottoman naval hegemony in the Mediterranean.
Beyond Capricorn
Notwithstanding her trading and military successes, a combination of factors led to
Spain’s bankruptcy in 1576. These included a narrowly-based economy, privateer attacks
on her bullion ships, the costs of maintaining a large fleet and the costs of extended land
wars in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Spain and Portugal’s successes in exploration, trade and colonisation encouraged the
Atlantic seaboard countries of France, England and the United Provinces of the
Netherlands (a’league of city states’ really) to follow suit. Already by the late sixteenth
century a large share of the profits obtained from servicing intercontinental trade was
accruing to Dutch (and, less so, English) merchants, shippers, bankers, brokers and
insurers. In the sense of providing venture-capital, the Netherlands was the first capitalist
Spain continued to fight a debilitating series of land wars in Europe and to struggle
against growing Dutch and (to a lesser extent) English power in the Atlantic and in
European waters. From the second half of the seventeenth century she was forced into a
series of treaties with the new maritime powers of Holland, England, and France, treaties
which broke her monopoly on trade with the Americas. Thereafter, much of the profit
from this trade went towards financing the economic growth of these countries rather
than Spain. Having failed to achieve the lasting economic strength which her American
empire promised, Spain entered the 18th century as a second-class power.
As for Portugal, by the time her independence had been regained, her dominance over sea
trade with the East had been lost to the English and Dutch. The country which had
brought Europe into the wider world was proving too small to be able to defend her
colonial possessions against intrusions by the English, Dutch and French. Perhaps the
loss of Brazil to an independence movement in 1822 marks the effective end of the
Portuguese empire.
European imperialism and mercantilism
Mercantilism is the belief that trade expansion will make a state strong, and therefore that
the state and her traders should cooperate to strengthen each other. Mercantilist ideas
were adopted enthusiastically by the emerging nation-states of Europe from the early 16th
century and reigned through 300 years marked by religious and commercial wars until the
coming of the industrial revolution and the perspective of laissez faire (free market)
economics. As the classical economists would later point out, ‘successful’ mercantilism
stands to produce an oversupply of money and, with it, serious inflation.
Imperialism and colonialism are related social technologies whereby, going beyond ‘free’
trade, an individual state seeks to manage the export mix from particular overseas regions
and/or to ‘lock-in’ exclusive access to exports from those regions. World-system theory
suggests that, most commonly, both imperialism and colonialism involve the coercionexploitation of a weaker power or population by an economically or militarily stronger
power.187 While the age of overt colonialism is now over, imperialism, notwithstanding
some rebadging, has continued as a favoured economic-political strategy by strong states
till the present day.
From the early 16th century the north Atlantic kingdoms of France and England had
sought to participate in the inter-continental trade which was making Portugal, and then
Spain, very rich. The English-sponsored John Cabot landed in Canada in 1497 believing,
like Columbus, that he had reached Asia. From 1524 the French were exploring the
Atlantic coast of present-day Canada and the United States. In 1534 the Frenchman
Jacques Cartier discovered the great inlet of the St Lawrence river and thought it could be
the mouth of a channel through the continent to the Pacific. While that was not to be,
permanent French Canadian settlements (New France) based on a profitable fur trade---a
by-product of the Little Ice Age which followed the Medieval Warm Period---were in
place there by 1608. Britain’s first permanent overseas settlement (1607) was in presentday Virginia, but it was her later colonies in the West Indies which first provided healthy
profits. These profits came from sugar plantations which depended on slave labour and
on Dutch shippers who imported slaves and exported sugar.
The Dutch, rich from a herring boom, and equipped with superior ships, had begun to
dominate intra-European sea trade, that is between Spain and the Baltic and North seas,
from the late 16th century. Spain was not able to suppress Dutch trading efforts there as
she had England’s. Over the first half of the seventeenth century, seeking a monopoly of
the Asian spice trade, the Dutch confronted the Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese empires
and established a network of fortified trading posts, bases and plantations of their own in
Asia, under the control of the Dutch East India Company, a state-sanctioned monopoly.
The other component of Dutch commercial strategy (apart from their pervasive
middleman activities) was to set up colonies across the Atlantic. Here they were not so
successful. New Netherland, centre of a flourishing fur trade around the Hudson River
(including present-day New York), was lost to the British in 1664. Further south, the
Dutch West India Company colonised some small islands in the West Indies and part of
the nearby mainland, but these served more as trading posts than as productive colonies.
It was Britain’s attempts (from 1651) to exclude Dutch ships from trading with her
American colonies which led to the series of Anglo-Dutch wars (1652-1674) which
would eventually strengthen England's position in the Americas at the expense of the
More generally, the 17th and 18th centuries was a period when existing economic and
political linkages between European, North and South American, East Asian, Indian and
African states, colonies and coastal trading enclaves were strengthened and extended.
For example, the trans-Atlantic slave trade which had grown quietly through the 15th and
16th centuries expanded sharply in the 17th and 18th centuries. Silver, spices, sugar,
slaves, coffee, tea, tobacco, ceramics and textiles were traded around the world. The
Frank, Wallerstein?? reference
energy of the winds, harnessed by sailing ships, had made the creation and maintenance
of a global commercial system possible.
Wars, civil wars and lesser conflicts such as piracy, revolts and uprisings continued
unabated on land and sea.188 For example, the Dutch strategy for acquiring a monopoly
of the cloves trade was to control clove-growing in one region and then, by warring
against clove traders and producers in other regions, eliminate clove-growing elsewhere.
History of course has assigned particular significance to the American and French
revolutions of the late 18th century.
Of the Eurasian empires not yet directly affected by European intrusion, the 17-18th
centuries saw territorial expansion in the Chinese, Russian and Mughal, and, even, the
Ottoman empires. Muscovy (the Russia-to-be)) expanded across northern Eurasia to
cover a sixth of the world’s land surface by 1795 and, through marriage, claim leadership
of the Eastern Christian church. Europe however remained unconsolidated. War there,
commonly religious war, was endemic because no state had clear superiority. One
consequence of this was an ‘arms race’ improvement in weaponry which was to later
ensure the military dominance of Europe over the rest of the world. Also, there was
greater scope for market-driven behaviour in Europe than elsewhere because
capital could move between countries when the command system in any one of them
became too demanding. Because mercantile wealth could not be readily appropriated by
bureaucratic authority, private and, subsequently, state wealth began to accumulate
rapidly, feeding on itself. The new wealth accumulated preferentially in metropolitan
areas at the expense of the rural peripheral peasantry who remained subject, not to market
forces, but to feudal control over their lives
At sea, Europe’s mercantilist era of quarrelling states came to a virtual end at Trafalgar in
1805 and, on land, a decade later at Waterloo. Nelson's crushing defeat of the French and
Spanish navies established Britain as the dominant world naval power for a century.
Similarly, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo destroyed French dominance of continental
Europe and ushered in seventy years in which Britain rather than France would become
the hegemonic power in the world system, just as, according to Immanuel Wallerstein,
the Dutch had been in middle half of the 17th century.189 In retrospect, mercantile
capitalism and Protestantism proved to be forces which could create states and empires
independent of feudalism and the church of Rome.
Fossil fuels and industrial capitalism
The distinctive characteristic of the industrial revolution was the progressive replacement
of human and animal muscle power, and then water and wind power, by inanimate
energy. For a long time, the technology which made this substitution possible was the Accessed 14Jan 2008
Wallerstein, I (1983) The three instances of hegemony in the history of the capitalist
world-economy, International j of comparative sociology XXIV, 1-2, 100-108
coal-fired steam engine, first invented before the Common Era but coming into wide use
(reinvented?) in England when it was realised that the important task of draining flooding
coal mines could not be successfully tackled by muscle-powered machinery. Coal, which
England had in abundance, was widely used for domestic heating (trees had become
scarce) but, more consequentially, was in high demand from industrial iron smelters.
Subsequently, by the end of the 18th century, steam engines were introduced in the textile
industry to drive the ever-larger looms etc which allowed labour to be more productive
and the size of the labour force to be reduced. Other industries which started benefiting
from cheap coal were sugar refining, soap boiling and the manufacture of glass, pottery
and bricks. The builders of coal colliers were indirect beneficiaries.
And, by mid-19th century, in what can be seen as a second phase of the industrial
revolution, steam power was being used to mechanise both transport and agricultural
A third and more complex phase of the industrial revolution was being driven by two
families of technologies by the early 20th century. One family developed around the use
of fossil oil for powering internal combustion engines, including, particularly, those in
automobiles and farm machinery; the farm tractor released enormous quantities of land
from the production of horse feed. The other was the generation of electricity in
commercial quantities by coal-fired power stations. Each family spawned clusters of new
industries including oil production, petroleum and petrochemicals, automobile production
and, based on electricity, communications, domestic applications and entertainment. A
fourth phase, post-World War 2, was based on a cluster of developments in the aviation,
aluminium and electronics industries.
At this point we might introduce the useful idea of a techno-economic system, i.e. an
interrelated set of technologies with which are associated particular sets of raw materials,
sources of energy, and infrastructure networks. The idea that the history of industrial
capitalism can be broken into phases dominated by successive techno-economic systems
can be usefully linked to another powerful idea, that of Kondratieff cycles. These are
named for the Russian whose massive study of social and economic time-series data first
identified them.190 His empirical observation was that, from the early 18th century, many
innovations and processes have diffused through society over time in a way which can be
described by an S-shaped (sigmoid) curve, i.e. slow growth at the beginning, followed by
accelerating and then decelerating growth culminating in excess capacity and market
saturation, eg mainframe computers ‘saturated’ around 1995.
Phases of global growth and expansion in economic activities last 50-60 years under this
model and are punctuated with phases of fundamental change in the structure of the
economy, the technological base and many social institutions and relations, i.e. change in
the techno-economic system. Towards the end of each techno-economic phase in the
economy, many markets saturate, inflation accelerates and growth (in real per capita
(Kondratieff 1926).
gross national product) slows. Brian Berry has concluded that whereas growth rates of
prices swing up and down in, approximately, 54-year cycles (Kondratieff waves), rates of
economic growth oscillate with 25-30 year rhythms, averaging 27 years and called
Kuznets cycles. That is, each Kondratieff long wave of price changes has two Kuznets
cycles of economic growth nested within it, one on the upwave of price changes from
trough ( marking deflationary depression) to peak (stagflation crisis) and one on the
downwave of prices from peak to trough. The search by entrepreneurs for revitalised
profits induces a cluster of new technologies which slowly at first, and then more rapidly,
penetrate markets.191 Why 55 years? We don’t know although, suggestively, Berry
(2000) finds economic activity strongly correlated with a lunisolar cycle of that length,
one which affects crop production regularly and just sufficiently to nudge (entrain)
various aspects of economic activity into step with each other and with the lunisolar
cycle! JD Sterman (1989) attributes these long oscillations to the interaction of various
sorts of lags in the economy’s responses to changing conditions, especially lags in the
buildup of capital required to lift output levels.192
Marchetti (1987) nominates 1940 and 1995 as the ends of Kondratieff price-growth
cycles. The data supporting such a precise cyclical view of socio-techno-economic
history is quite impressive but cannot ‘prove’ that the world economy is indeed entering a
new growth phase that will slow, accelerate and then slow again towards 2050.
Nonetheless, there is a cluster of new technologies currently beginning to generate
products for growing world markets. These centre around computer and communication
technologies and, to a lesser extent, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, new energy
technologies and new transport technologies.
Looking for inflection points in the way humanity has historically used technology and
energy, it is possible to see the second half of the 20th century as the effective end to what
is widely known as the industrial revolution---if we see that revolution as one in which
humans learned to extend their physical capabilities by using energy-processing machines
as prostheses for completing both large- and small-scale tasks, or to complete tasks more
rapidly. While technologies for manipulating physical materials (eg, in war, extractive
industries, engineering, chemical synthesis) have continued to emerge, technologies for
manipulating and communicating information, building on printing, telegraphy, radio and
television, became increasingly important with the invention and utilisation of computers
in the second half of the 20th century. At the risk of overusing the word, we have moved
on to an information revolution.
The trend towards European dominance of trade and capital accumulation under
mercantilism was only reinforced by the industrial revolution. After the 18th century, as
Britain’s industrial revolution spread to other countries, European states were able to use
(Grubler and Nakicenovic 1991
Sterman JD 1989 nonlinear dynamics in the world economy in Christiansen P and
Parmentier RD eds Structure, coherence and chaos in dynamical systems Manchester U
both cheap manufactured goods and military superiority to dominate and extract
economic surpluses from peripheral states around the world in a frenzy of colonisation,
most notably in the ‘scramble for Africa.’ And in this they were helped by the decaying
of the gunpowder empires that had arisen in the 15th and 16th centuries. Overseas
investment became an outlet for surplus capital which could not be profitably invested in
saturated home markets.193 Also, the opening up of the farmlands of the ‘New World’
colonies of North America and Australasia boosted world food supplies and, in time, the
rate of world population growth. This was on top of a lift in world food supplies that had
already been triggered by the introduction of productive American crops---potato, sweet
potato, maize, and cassava---into Europe and West Africa.194 Substantial cities began to
appear after 1700 and grew with amazing speed in the 19th century. By now, industrial
capitalism, based on entrepreneurs investing in the production of standardised
manufactured goods, had replaced mercantile capitalism as the paradigmatic economic
system. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this form of economic organisation became the
main, but not only, means of achieving industrialisation throughout much of the world.
Social and political change under industrial capitalism
Turning from the economic to the social, the structures, experiences and perspectives of
ordinary people’s lives were transformed by the industrial revolution. Displaced rural
families who had lived their lives in a world of subsistence agriculture, cottage industry
(eg wool spinning), barter, fairs and market towns now worked under inhuman conditions
in ghastly factories and lived in terrace houses in and around large cities. While their
housing was quite often an improvement on rural hovels, infant mortality increased under
the dense, cramped living conditions accompanying rapid urbanisation. During the early
industrial revolution, 50 per cent of infants died before the age of two.195 Children as
young as eight were sent to work in factories and mines. Mortality amongst children
older than two started falling from about 1870, but a major decline for younger children
came only with rising incomes and improved public health measures after the turn of the
Most factory workers came to uncomplainingly accept their lot for, as Eric Fromm points
out, ‘Every society shapes the energies of people in such a way that they want to do what
they must do in order for society to function. Social necessities become transformed into
personal needs, into social character.’ 196 Notwithstanding, worker disenchantment grew
Heilbroner RL (1953) The worldly Philosophers: the Lives, times and Ideas of the Great
Economic thinkers, Simon and Schuster, New York. Chapter 7.
194 Ronald Wright 2008 What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (Knopf
(in Long-wave rhythms in economic development and political behaviour, Johns Hopkins
University Press Baltimore Maryland)195 Stearns, Peter et al. World History: Tradition and
New Direction. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
Fromm, E., The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, in Religious Perspectives
(vol 12) ed. Ruth Nanda Ashen, New York, 1964:93
and fomented as the industrial revolution progressed. One pseudospecies, the factory
owners was accumulating great wealth while another, the working class, remained
impoverished. It was an environment in which the political philosophy of socialism
emerged to challenge the reigning ideas of individualism and laissez-faire, the ideas (see
below) which gave legitimacy to the callous norms of industrial capitalism. While
British society was never restructured along socialist lines, a series of Factory Acts which
slowly reformed working conditions was enacted from 1833 onwards.
Changing perceptions of nature, people and society
Full tribute has been paid to the Greek contribution to the development of consciousness,
writing and cognitive skills. Notwithstanding, the Greek genius was one-sided in that
they reasoned deductively from what appeared to be self-evident, not inductively from
what had been observed.197 Not always of course. Aristotle, pupil of Plato, could be an
acute observer but many of his looser speculations were later adopted as dogma by the
Roman Catholic Church. For example, the Aristotle-Plato view that the Earth is at the
centre of the universe (geocentrism) was a self-serving Church dogma from the 3rd
century to the 1500s and scientists who, like Galileo, disagreed were regarded as heretics.
The powerful Church philosophers of late medieval-Renaissance times (Scholastics) had
never retained the Greek realisation that the truth is something to be discovered. Rather,
to quote Alasdair MacIntyre, they had ‘allowed themselves to be deceived about the
character of the facts of the natural and social world by imposing an Aristotelian
interpretation between themselves and experienced reality.’198 Conversely, the postRenaissance humanist philosophers of the 17th and 18th century, led by Rousseau,
Voltaire and de Montesquieu, saw themselves as stripping away interpretation and
speculative theory and confronting fact and experience just as they are. They saw
themselves as throwing light on what Aristotle obscured. It was thus an Age of
Consider science. The 17th century is commonly regarded as a time of ‘revolutionary’
growth in scientific knowledge and ‘revolutionary’ changes in research methods and
principles. And it is true that many key ideas from the Aristotelian tradition were
transformed at this time by such great scientists (then called natural philosophers) as
Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. Thus, the mechanist natural philosopher René Descartes
struck down Aristotle’s ‘final cause,’ the idea that Nature’s way is purposive, instead
likening her processes to those of a mechanical clock in which inert particles of matter
are moved by direct physical contact. Where Nature had previously been imagined to be
an active entity, the mechanist philosophers viewed Nature as following natural, physical
laws. However, while less so than in physics, chemistry and biology still find it helpful,
Carothers 1959 (McLuhan Gutenberg) page?]
MacIntyre A After Virtue p.78.
albeit metaphorically, to see Nature as goal-directed. And Descartes’ clockwork world
has given way to one where much of Nature is seen in terms of complex energyprocessing systems populated by unruly feedback relationships.
While an empirical or experimental approach to scientific discovery was boosted and
slowly adopted through the influence of, particularly, Novum Organum (1620), Francis
Bacon’s direct challenge to Aristotelian method. it is salutary to note that the Persian
(Arab?) polymath Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039)199 formulated a quantitative, empirical and
experimental approach to physics some 600 years before Bacon. His approach included
the use of mathematical methods to describe and generalise measurements of physical
phenomena, something that European scientists arrived at in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Despite its many successes, and great expectations, the new approach to science was slow
to yield results that, translated into technology, stood to benefit industrial capitalism
(pottery was an exception). That was a ‘payoff’ which only began to flow copiously in
the second half of the 19th century when, in particular, the science of metallurgy
permitted the matching of alloy steels to industrial specifications, the science of
chemistry permitted the creation of new substances like aniline dyes, and electricity and
magnetism were harnessed in the electric dynamo and motor. As this perceptive quote
from Hanbury Brown200 shows, science depends on technology as much as technology
depends on science:
At the time Bacon wrote---the early 17th century---scientists were
making rapid progress largely due to the new scientific
instruments---the telescope, microscope, thermometer, barometer,
pendulum clock and the air pump.
Histories of science are often written in terms of outstanding
people like Newton and Einstein, so that they give the impression
that the progress of science depends largely on the development
of new theories. It would be nearer the truth to say that it depends
on the development of new instruments and hence on new
materials and new ways of making things ... our knowledge of the
real world is limited by the tools which are available at the time.
Science, capitalism and democracy
Robert Heilbroner (1995:112) nominated ‘the promise of science’ as one of three
widespread changes in perspective that emerged from the 18th century European
Enlightenment and noted that all three spawned powerful secular trends which are still
being worked through worldwide. His other nominations were:
Wikipedia (accessed 31/01/2008)
The Wisdom of Science 1986
Confidence in capitalism’s capacity to utilize resources (land, labour and capital) to
produce goods and services in great quantities
The legitimacy of the will of the people as the source of their own collective direction.
We can note that all three shifts in perspective have their origins in that active willingness
to challenge philosophical, political and religious authority which resurfaced during the
early Renaissance. This heightened confidence itself rested on an expanded faith in what
can be accomplished through reason, where reason is that ability which helps people
decide what is true.
It would have been hard to not recognise the productive potential of industrial capitalism
in the face of the industrial revolution’s clear demonstration that entrepreneurs had
learned to combine fossil energy with land, labour and capital to produce standardized
manufactured goods and services in quantity. What may not have been recognized
though is that for entrepreneurial industrial capitalism to develop on any significant scale,
entrepreneurs must be able to buy land ( a catch-all for natural resources), labour and
capital (both capital goods and funds) in competitive markets which reflect the value and
availability of those inputs for producing saleable commodities. Without such markets,
coordinating or even initiating industrial ventures becomes very difficult and inefficient.
As explained by Karl Polanyi (1944) in The Great Transformation: The Political and
Economic Origins of our Times, it took many hundreds of years, from feudal times
onwards, for effective markets in land, labour and money to come into being in Britain.
But, by the early industrial revolution British entrepreneurs could buy and sell land,
labour-power and capital in ‘free’ markets, meaning markets subject to few sociallyimposed rules and influences. For example, the abandonment of the Speenhamland
system of poor relief in England at the end of the 18th century marked the last gasp of a
social order that had accepted a degree of collective responsibility for the welfare of its
members. Thereafter workers had little choice but to accept the working conditions
offered by monopsonistic employers, commonly unwilling to offer more than subsistence
wages. In line with a pervasive acceptance by entrepreneurs and their parliamentary
supporters of a self-serving version of Adam Smith’s case for the virtues of competitive
markets,201 land and capital markets were similarly unregulated. It was a laissez faire
economy, an expression, in today’s terms, of neo-liberal values. More generally, British
society was, for a time, engulfed by the idea of individualism, meaning, basically, that
everyone is responsible for themselves and, obversely, that society has few
responsibilities towards its members. The post-feudal rise in free labour and the idea of
status based on acquired wealth (not land) had both provided opportunities for the
emergence of individualism. Output advanced dramatically with the 19th century, but so
did social instability and political conflict.
Smith, A Wealth of Nations
Polanyi argues that the threat of major disruption to British society declined only when a
significant degree of social control over the use of labour, land, and money had been
restored through the creation of new institutions, such as trade unions and a central bank,
and the emergence of a body of legislation that established legal limits in areas such as
wages, working conditions, and the use of land and other natural resources. He further
argues that this perception of early industrial capitalism illustrates the absolute necessity
of having such a politically defined national framework of laws and institutions to set the
constraints within which markets must operate if their tendencies to destroy non-market
values (eg, the family, the natural world) are to be effectively contained. Even money
markets require central banking and the management of the monetary system to protect
manufacturers and other producers from the unpredictable dynamics of unfettered
monetary operations. 202
Given the support for unregulated markets by the rich and powerful, how then did social
control over markets come about in the industrialising countries of Europe in the 19th
century? The answer lies in the establishment of parliamentary democracies in Europe
during the Enlightenment, these being a practical expression of Heilbroner’s third major
change in perspective---recognition of the sovereignty of the people. To quote Harris
(1977: 264) on this putatively surprising development:
In anthropological perspective, the emergence of bourgeois
democracies in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
Europe was a rare reversal of that descent from freedom to
slavery which had been the main characteristic of the
evolution of the state for 6000 years.
The mind turns here to the French Revolution of 1789. This was not so much a
revolution against the external effects of industrial capitalism as a revolution against
malnutrition, unemployment, fierce taxes and privilege. The group which came to power
was dedicated to the proposition that government had the right to and should, in the name
of ‘the people’ who were ‘sovereign,’ impose radical change on the social system.
Furthermore, these two ideas---that reformist political change is a ‘normal’ process and
that it is the ‘people’ who are sovereign---spread rapidly throughout the world and,
indeed, have never since gone away.
These two ideas were not new of course. Their classical roots have been noted but, more
immediately, and for example, Tom Paine’s tracts fuelled both the French and American
revolutions. His Rights of Man became the cornerstone for thinking about one of
humanity’s truly great social technologies, namely human rights. Thus, printed books
were continuing to act as agents of cultural change because of the ideas they contained
and the ease with which they could be accessed. Indeed, Edmund Burke in England and
Joseph de Maistre in France were soon to publish ‘reactionary’ books that fundamentally
challenged the whole doctrine of parliamentary democracy and reasserted the enduring
(Polanyi p 132).
social and moral value of ‘traditional’ authorities.203 The Counter-Enlightenment had
Reverting to a longer view, the advent of parliamentary democracy was the culmination
of a process of gradual change in the principles that governed the distribution of power in
European society. Coming out of feudal times, an oligarchy empowered by military
strength, God’s support for church and monarchy, aristocratic breeding and land
ownership gradually lost power to a commercial class of wealthy merchants. The
parliaments of the first stage were congresses of feudal lords. The parliaments of the
second stage were increasingly inclusive of and dominated by rich traders. Perhaps
ironically, the idea of ‘universal’ human rights (eg voting rights) for all citizens,
irrespective of their social roles, and the freedom to exercise those rights, which is
nowadays used to justify democracy was first used to justify a redistribution of power to
the commercial class.204
Around the world, a modest trend towards accepting, recognising and expanding citizen
rights, opportunities and protections, albeit marked by numerous reverses, has continued
ever since. Certainly lip-service is paid to the idea of parliamentary democracy in most
contemporary nation-states. It is a trend which has almost always been confronted by and
resisted by advocates of market deregulation and by supporters of traditional authority.
When confined within the crucible of parliamentary democracy of some sort, the struggle
between the groups (pseudospecies) that these two trends speak for has expressed itself as
an uneasy oscillation of power between a spectrum of fuzzy political ideologies which
differ foremost in their beliefs about the rate at which power should be transferred to the
citizenry. Conservatives want slow or no change. Liberals, while favouring a return to
free markets (economic liberalism) and individualism (political liberalism), have,
historically, been willing to accept a moderate rate of political change. The liberal
concept of individualism emphasises the idea of personal freedom, meaning that the state
guarantees certain rights to the individual citizen in hir dealings with those in authority.
Socialists, more radically, have wanted markets, the arbiters of what is produced, to be
replaced by more collective processes of decision-making.
An important part of the struggle to control the parliamentary process and the outcomes
of participatory democracy has always been around the question of who is a citizen. Who
is a member of the political community? Who is to have influence on the political
process? Before the Enlightenment, full citizenship was a privilege, an elevated status
limited by class, race, creed, gender, age, income etc.205 While many of these constraints
Burke Reflections
de Maistre J (1797/ 1994) Considerations on France Cambridge University Press,
204 Website for International Center for Peace and Development Accessed 7/2/08
205 Woolf, L., After the Deluge, 1931/ 1937 Pelican London Chapter 2.
have been relaxed in advanced contemporary democracies, no nation-state has as yet
offered full citizenship to every resident who wants it. Indeed, governments with
Counter-Enlightenment leanings (and not just Fascist states) have regularly seized and
created opportunities to downgrade the citizenship status of groups designated as threats
to the nation-state.
The idea of the nation-state was itself a product of the Enlightenment. In Western Europe
and the Western Hemisphere, since the late 18th century, humanity has been perceived as
divided into groups called nations, people sharing a common identity and history. A state
is a political structure with effective coercive power within a geographic area. While a
nation is not identical to a state, the people of a nation-state consider themselves a nation.
Nationalism, a doctrine which has had an enormous influence on modern world history,
holds that the people of a nation have the right to democratically govern themselves
without outside interference; most nationalists believe the borders of the state should be
congruent with the borders of the nation; most nationalists regard the nation-state as the
paramount instrument for realising the social, economic and cultural aspirations of its
Counter-Enlightenment forces continued to wield often-repressive political power in most
of Europe for most of the seventy years after the French Revolution. But, coinciding
generally with the spread of the industrial revolution, a tide of French-inspired
nationalism was rolling in. Greece, for example, achieved independence from the
Ottoman Empire in 1829.
By 1848, population growth and a series of poor harvests in the 1840s produced an
industrial slump and a doubling of food costs. These triggers, along with nationalist
awakenings and short-sighted repression help explain why that pivotal year saw a wave
of attempts at revolution (by French (again), Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Balkan
Christians) and the beginnings of German and Italian unification. While none of these
ventures was immediately successful, they emphatically signalled that all-powerful
monarchies would no longer be a legitimate or feasible form of government and that
nationalist sentiment (patriotism) would become the primary source of their own
legitimacy for many states. Over following decades, a number of ‘enlightened
conservative’ governments, following the British example, accepted the necessity of
‘concessions’ in order to forestall worse unrest. Notwithstanding, the nationalist
aspirations of these and other peoples and their desire to form nation-states independent
of the empires from which they sprang remained an important element in the brew of
processes that, in 1914, exploded into World War 1.
World wars
Despite presenting as a kaleidescope of internal revolutions, unrest and shifting
boundaries around emerging states, Europe, in terms of wars between nations, remained
largely at peace from 1815 to 1914. This felicitous state of affairs is usually attributed to
the formation of the Concert of Europe, an informal political integration of the great
powers of Europe (initially United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, Prussia and France) that
met from time to time to solve, in concert, problems that threatened peace between
European nations. Given Europe’s global hegemony at the time, the Concert of Europe
can be seen as an early attempt at global governance, a forerunner to the League of
Nations (1920-1946) and the United Nations Organisation (1945- ). To the extent that it
was successful for a century, the Concert of Europe relied, first, on the ‘no outside
interference’ principle of state sovereignty as the cornerstone of inter-nation law and
order, a principle going back to the Westphalian treaties which, in 1648, marked the end
of several long European wars. Second was an acceptance of the balance-of-power
doctrine, i.e. the need to prevent any one nation from becoming strong enough to impose
its will upon the rest. The further notion of ‘general war’ prescribed that all states should
band together against any ‘rogue state’ that aggressively attacked another.
Now, following Polanyi, the participants in what, by the 19th century, had become a
world-wide capitalist system of extraction and production (thanks to imperialism, the
spread of industrialisation and cheap coal-fired ocean transport ) recognised that, if they
were to reliably earn good profits, they needed a world of non-aggressive and internally
stable sovereign states, perhaps not all states but certainly the great and near-great
The fact was that the market economy could flourish only in
societies able to define a relatively coherent national
economic space within which it was possible to achieve a
viable political compromise regarding the "limits of the
market." Moreover, the links that such national economies
forged with the outside world always had to be managed and
controlled in ways that could be reconciled with that
domestic political compromise, but this would always be a
source of friction that could escalate into a crisis at any time,
because unforeseen changes in the international economy
could always transform a manageable set of external linkages
into a quite unmanageable one, thereby "requiring" a degree
of domestic adjustment that was incompatible with the
existing domestic political compromise, or indeed with any
potential compromise.206
Manfred Bienefeld The lessons of history and the developing world Monthly Review JulyAugust, 1989 n3_v41
*The lessons of history and the developing world*
And this is what happened. Towards the end of the 19th century, the world’s economic
system was not working to the benefit of most people, thanks largely, to the widespread
adoption of a monetary system called the gold standard, one in which the standard
economic unit of account was a fixed weight of gold. Under the gold standard, each
nation’s currency issuers guaranteed to redeem each unit of paper money, upon demand,
with a specified amount of gold. This had profound expansionary effects on international
trade and investment, a sphere dominated by and dependent upon a relatively few
powerful international financiers such as the Rothschild family. In particular, because
exchange rates between currencies were constant, decisions to buy, sell or invest in
foreign markets became less risky; funds could always be withdrawn at a guaranteed rate
of exchange. Also, nations on the gold standard could borrow at lower interest rates.
The downside of this monetary system, because of linkages we need not explore here,
was that many nations found that, to maintain a guaranteed exchange rate, the domestic
economy had to be contracted periodically, basically by raising interest rates or reducing
the amount of money in circulation. For example, recessions severe enough to prompt
protectionist measures hit Europe and United States in the early 1890s. Such contractions
hurt domestic producers, consumers and workers, eg through more unemployment, lower
wages. But, because these groups lacked the political power of the international
investment community, central banks were free (were directed?) to do whatever was
needed to maintain exchange rates---without fear of the domestic consequences,
economic or political. In the longer term, it would be the rise of European labour
movements that would kill off the gold standard; political elites would be forced to share
power with broadly-elected parliaments containing influential parties representing labour
and agrarian interests, parties which didn't care for contraction, deflation, and high
interest rates. Meanwhile, apart from a relative decline and slowing in the previouslydominant British economy, world economic activity and trade picked up in the two
decades before the Great War. Globalisation as measured by the ratio of trade to Gross
World Product was in fact higher in the period 1870-1914 than in the period 1914-1950.
While exchange rates between a core of industrial countries remained stable for some
decades prior to the Great War, the gold standard functioned less successfully in the
peripheral countries of the global economy---basically, those supplying raw materials to
the industrialised economies. Such economies were subject to large economic shocks as
the prices of their exports rose and fell. Countries at the periphery were also subject to
large shocks as British investors' willingness to loan capital abroad went through
unpredictable cycles. Latin countries, for example, were repeatedly forced off of the gold
standard and into devaluation by financial crises.
As emphasised by world-system theorists207 the distinction between core, semi-peripheral
and peripheral economies persists till the present day. Extractive economies, as they
‘develop,’ use up their reserves and become impoverished, while the productive
Wallerstein, Bunker
economies of the core zones, as they develop, increase their power to dominate and
exploit the extractive economies. As a generalisation, the chief mechanism by which the
surplus value generated by core-periphery trade gets consistently transferred from
peripheral to core countries is that peripheral exporters have to accept low-profit
‘competitive’ prices for their primary products while industrial exporters can impose a
degree of monopoly (high profit) pricing on their secondary products. Stephen Bunker
argues convincingly that this core-periphery mechanism produces uneven development
within states just as it does between states.208
Unleash the dogs of war
When war came it was at the end of a decade-long series of diplomatic clashes between
the great powers, clashes which drove tensions to near breaking point. In turn these
diplomatic clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power after 1871, the year
of German unification. By the dawn of the 20th century, United States (after its civil
war), Italy and Japan (after the Meiji Restoration) had become great powers, even as the
Romanov empire (Russia) and the Habsburg empire (Austria-Hungary) were declining
(notwithstanding, or perhaps for this reason, there was a ‘will to war’ in both Russia and
Austria-Hungary). Japan became the first East Asian country to transform itself into a
modern nation and to win a war against a European power (the Russo-Japanese War of
1905). Despite a complicated set of military treaties between Europe’s great powers, and
given a situation exacerbated by various ‘arms races’, the balance of power was
unravelling. British hegemony was coming to an end. For many, war seemed an
attractive way out of cumulating domestic and foreign problems. Europe in 1914 was
surely a non-equilibrium system which, having adapted as far as it could to increasing
energy throughputs from trade and industrialisation, was triggered into a massive
restructuring---the Great War (World War 1) and its aftermath---by a single political
In the event, it was an outcome of the Great War that various nationalist aspirations came
to fruition. With the toppling of the ruling dynasties in Germany, Austria-Hungary,
Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, a number of new nation-states appeared in central and
eastern Europe. These included Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland,
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia-to-be. Even then, many of the new nationstates contained national minorities who demanded independence or changes to frontiers.
For example, the conflicting claims of German and Polish nationalists became the
nominal reason for the outbreak of World War 2.
Outside Europe, World War I, together with the spread of Western ideas, stimulated the
rise of nationalism in Asia and Africa. Some examples. After defeating the Western
allies (1922-1923), the Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), were able to remodel
their state along European lines. During the same period the leader of the Indian National
Congress, Mohandas Gandhi, was stirring the aspirations of the Indian masses for
Bunker, last chapter
national independence. And in China, Sun Yat-sen the leader of the Kuomintang
(Nationalist People's Party), inspired a successful national revolution against the last
(Qing) dynasty. Because these various movements were directed against European
capitalist powers, they were supported by the Soviet-communist state.
On the economic front, the chronic instability that characterised the global economy prior
to the Great War only worsened in the period between the first and second world wars.
The gold standard was re-introduced in 1925 but the world-wide economic downturn of
1930-1939, known as the Great Depression was approaching and the gold standard was
abandoned, country by country, from 1931. The longer a country stayed on the gold
standard, the more overall deflation it experienced. The Keynesian (demand
management) and social-democratic reforms that were introduced into the world-system’s
core of industrial states during and after World War 2 reflected the lesson drawn by most
observers at the time, namely, that an unregulated economy in which investment is driven
by private capital markets is inherently unstable and inefficient. Once again, ideas
spread by a book (JM Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money)
would shape the world.
Geopolitically, the post-war inter-war period (1918-1939) saw the appearance of
totalitarian regimes in Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy and Portugal. Whether fascist as in
Germany or communist as in Russia, a totalitarian system of government tolerates only a
single political party, one to which all other institutions are subordinated, and which
demands the complete subservience of the individual to the State, including their
thoughts! Communism, at least in its Soviet form, is a totalitarian version of socialism.
The rise of fascism in Hitler’s Germany appears to exemplify the willingness of a people
battered by their rapid descent into poverty and a humiliating post-war loss of national
identity to put their future in the hands of a nationalist demagogue, a future from which
they could not escape as Germany turned into a militaristic police state.
[[An alternative perspective is that aggressive fascism offered a way forward for both
Germany and Japan, two highly industrialised countries which, unlike Britain, France and
America, had no territorial base from which to draw raw materials.]]]
A new order
A victory in World War 2 (1939-1945) by an alliance of capitalist and communist states
over an axis of fascist states produced a new world order, a ‘cold war’ between a
‘western’ bloc of capitalist powers led by the United States and an ‘eastern’ bloc of
communist powers led by the Soviet Union. It was surely the threats of all-destructive
nuclear war and high civilian casualties which prevented direct hostilities between these
blocs as they competed across the world for military and economic superiority; and
proselytised for converts to their respective ideologies of communism and capitalism.
With the collapse and dismemberment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in
1989, the United States became, for a moment, the world’s unchallenged hegemonic
Elsewhere, the growth of nationalism in colonial countries was quickened by World War
2. The British, French, and Dutch empires in eastern Asia had been overrun by the
Japanese, an axis power that widely disseminated the nationalistic slogan ‘Asia for the
Asians.’ The colonial powers were weakened further by the military and economic
consequences of the war and by the expansion of Soviet influence. In its propaganda, the
Soviet Union emphasized the right of colonial countries to national self-determination
and independence. Britain granted independence to India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri
Lanka), Burma (now known as Myanmar) and Malaya (now part of Malaysia). The
United States granted independence to the Philippines. The Netherlands relinquished
control of the Netherlands Indies, which became the Republic of Indonesia. France lost
possession of its colonial empire in Indochina. By 1957 nationalism had triumphed
throughout Asia, and the colonial empires there, with the exception of countries tied to
the Soviet Union, ceased to exist.
Similarly, in Africa and the Middle East, nationalist movements developed postwar and,
in many cases, succeeded. By 1958 newly established nation-states included Israel,
Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Ghana, Iraq and the United Arab Republic (Egypt and
Syria). In the 1960s and 1970s, Algerians, Libyans, and many formerly British, French,
or Belgian colonies in black Africa became independent. .
Europe itself experienced an enormous amount of ethnic ‘unmixing’ following a post-war
movement of the boundary of the Soviet Union westward into Poland. Millions of
Germans, Poles and Ukrainians were forcibly resettled. An exchange of populations took
place between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, with Slovaks transferred out of Hungary
and Magyars sent away from Czechoslovakia. A smaller number of Magyars also moved
to Hungary from Yugoslavia, with Serbs and Croats moving in the opposite direction.
Later again, the decline of Communist rule in Eastern Europe unleashed separatist forces
that contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.
The 1990s saw a number of former Soviet satellites, including the Central Asian
republics, joining the United Nations.
Nationalism remains a potent force in world affairs. Competing Jewish, Arab, and
Palestinian nationalist aspirations continue to generate political instability in the Middle
East. Elsewhere, separatist movements are commonly ethnically-based (eg amongst
indigenes and minorities) and tend to be found in economically backward (peripheral)
regions of post-colonial societies, eg Aceh and Irian Jaya in Indonesia. Separatists
movements in industrial states (eg, Scots, Walloons, Bretons) tend to be in
underdeveloped regions of those states.
The world-wide wave of post-1945 decolonization is sometimes attributed to a belated
recognition by colonising powers of the democratic rights of colonised peoples. This
may well be part of the story but, as JK Galbraith notes in A Journey Through Economic
Time, there were economic reasons also.209 Domestic economic growth and trade
between the advanced industrial countries had come to be seen as far more important than
any gains from colonial trade. In cost-benefit terms, ex-colonizers lose any obligations,
financial or otherwise, to their ex-colonies. Nonetheless, ex-colonizers can still access
their ex-colonies’ cheap goods and labour and, where necessary to their purposes, exert
financial, military and political pressure. Territory per se is of no value under this neoimperialist perspective. What had been a system of European core states, each with its
own colonial empire in Asia, Africa and the Americas became a global system of
sovereign states.
Trade, particularly between industrialised nations, grew rapidly in the post-1945 world.
While the gold standard never returned in classical form, the Bretton Woods international
monetary system which was negotiated by the Allies in 1944 and lasted till 1971 was
another attempt to maintain stable exchange rates. This time it was only the American
dollar which was made freely convertible into gold. Capital flows were largely restricted
and room for a nation to manoeuvre in the case of a persistent imbalance of payments
was achieved through the introduction of contingently-adjustable exchange rates. So,
following an ‘age of catastrophe’ from 1914 to the aftermath of the Second World War,
the world experienced 25-30 years of a ‘sort of golden age’ of extraordinary economic
growth and social transformation.210
The Postmodern Era
Vaclav Havel defined the modern world as the almost five centuries from the discovery
of America to the moon landing in 1969.211 The Postmodern Era is thus a convenient
name for the period from the early 1970s to the present and near-future.212 How, from
the perspective of a brief world history of the Common Era, might this era be described?
What have been the recent and ongoing changes---economic, political, social, ecological,
environmental and psychological---that have the greatest potential to change quality of
life for large numbers of people, now and into the indefinite future? That is what we are
looking for.
Economic well-being
These have been decades in which capitalism, as well as communism, has failed global
society in important ways----as evidenced by mass unemployment, cyclical slumps,
increasing divergence between wealth and poverty and between state revenues and state
expenditures. Consonant with the Kondratieff model, the growth rate of the world
economy dropped from five per cent per annum in the 1960s to two per cent in the 1990s.
Galbraith, JK (1994) A Journey through economic time: a firsthand view, Houghton
Mifflin Boston
210 Hobsbawm (1994)
211 Vaclav Havel, "The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World," speech in
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1994.
212 accessed 10/04/08
An increasingly integrated and deregulated world economy has undermined the economic
independence of all regimes. As in the period prior to World War 1, the last 30-40 years
have again seen the increasingly free movement of capital make it difficult for countries
to maintain stable exchange rates and full employment. In their efforts to survive, many
regimes replaced the Keynesian economic ideas which ruled in the golden age with neoliberal and laissez-faire ideas. The intention has been to create domestic environments
favourable to the owners of globally mobile capital, including such policies as anti-strike
laws and low taxes on capital. But followers of the ‘deregulation’ path have done no
better than others and a swing back towards interventionist thinking is now appearing, eg
towards new ways of regulating global capital flows.213
All economic activity requires materials and energy and growth in economic activity has
now brought the world to a point where, according to the World Energy Outlook 2007,
published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), it faces an unsustainable energy
future if governments do not radically change their energy policies in the next ten years.
If governments hold to current policies, the world’s primary energy needs will grow by
55 percent between 2005 and 2030, the report says. This growing demand will mostly be
in developing countries and will be overwhelmingly (84 per cent) met by fossil fuels.
While crude oil production has probably peaked, coal and uranium are still readily
available. But, be clear, the ‘scramble for energy’ is on. Greenhouse gas emissions will
rise by 57 percent, with the United States, China, India, and Russia contributing twothirds of the increase. Renewable energy technologies (particularly wind, solar and
geothermal) have enormous potential but the size of the ‘capital hump’ which has to be
climbed over if these are to be implemented on a sufficient scale to replace fossil energy
is not widely appreciated.214 Energy-hungry technologies (eg fertilizers, aircraft, mass
media) have allowed the capabilities of the world’s food, transport and communications
systems to grow enormously, thereby accelerating the processes by which formerly
separate societies are coming to function as a single society, economically, socially and
Nourished by ever-expanding scientific knowledge, new technologies have appeared in
droves and continued to squeeze human labour out of the production of goods and
services, without necessarily providing suitable work for those jettisoned, or a rate of
economic growth sufficient to absorb them. Very few observers seriously expect a return
to the full employment of the golden age in the West---but a shortage of workers as
populations age could change that. Demand in Western mass markets will continue to
decline insofar as transfer incomes (social security etc.) fall.
The global capitalist system, increasingly the province of large trans-national
corporations, including state-owned ‘sovereign wealth funds,’ remains under threat from
213 Quiggin, J (200?) the fall and rise of the global economy chapter 2 in Globalisation:
Australian Impacts UNSW Press
214 A capital hump occurs in the manufacturing sector when there is an intermediate demand
for machines needed to produce the machines in final demand.
several directions. One is the volatility of increasingly deregulated global financial
markets which, seeking to reduce risk in various elaborate ways, have grown perhaps
twice as fast as the dollar value of world trade.215 More general is the ongoing resistance
to the global capitalist system from those pseudospecies who perceive its outcomes to be,
above all, inequitable, and who increasingly operate on an international stage. The socalled ‘world revolution of 1968’ when groups in many countries protested at the slow
rate of redistribution of economic benefits post-1945 is a primary example.216 The
activities of the World Social Forum and protests against the World Trade Organisation
are more recent examples. Such movements are better not dismissed as trivial, especially
when viewed as part of a broader push for the formation of a global state.
Global governance
Despite widespread doubts in recent decades as to the legitimacy and effectiveness of
nation-states, the people of the world have persisted with and continued to adopt the
nation-state as their basic form of political organization. And, to the extent that people
from different parts of the world come together to take collective action of some sort, it is
still nation-states which most commonly represent people’s interests in such fora. What
might be termed transnational social movements are one growing exception to this
generalisation, eg movements concerned with status of women, environmental protection,
human rights, democracy, anti-globalisation, world economy (Davos) etc.
The most inclusive of international political organizations is of course the United Nations
(UN). That inclusiveness gives the UN a legitimacy such that, despite being currently
dominated, quite undemocratically, by the US hegemon and the core Allied powers from
the Second World War, a reformed UN (more checks and balances, more resources, less
bureaucracy) could yet become a true federation of the world’s states. Meanwhile,
reflecting the perceived benefits of targeted cooperation, there are ever-more examples, at
a smaller scale, of more-or-less successful multi-state organizations. Thus, I judge the
European Union to be quite successful. The International Monetary Fund, on the other
hand, appears to have lost credibility.
Notwithstanding, while a world war is not on the horizon, it is a disordered world in
many ways, a world in which there are no institutionalised procedures for dealing with a
multitude of international governance issues. Consider how dozens of new territories
have emerged without any independent mechanisms for border determination. Consider
climate change. Consider nuclear proliferation. Consider the management of warfare as a
social technology. We live in a world where industrial states can win battles against
peripheral and semi-peripheral states but not wars, not in the sense of being able to
control the conquered territory after ‘victory’. The privatisation of the means of
destruction means that it is now quite possible for small groups of political or other Accessed
216 Wallerstein (19) World-systems analysis : An Introduction p84
dissidents to disrupt and destroy anywhere. Concurrently, the cost of keeping unofficial
violence under control has risen dramatically. Singer and Wildavsky (1993) are two who,
like Eric Hobsbawm, see the world as dividing into two parts. One part is characterised
by peace, wealth and democracy. The other by zones of war, turmoil and slow
development, zones where a century of disruption can be expected. Note though that the
short lives of the twentieth century’s totalitarian and ruthlessly dictatorial regimes
reinforce the idea that sheer coercive power has its limits.
State of the nation-state
Wallerstein (1995) has charted the changing legitimacy of states over the past 500 years,
i.e. the degree to which such are accepted/ supported by their citizens. Initially weak, the
cement of nationalism and the rise of the concept of the sovereignty of the people,
particularly after the French revolution, created strong nation (cf. city) states although
class struggles (eg Disraeli’s ‘two nations’), did threaten to delegitimize states in the
nineteenth century. However, support from both left wing and right wing forces, the right
emphasising unity against external enemies and the left holding out the possibility of the
people taking control of the state apparatus, strengthened the state and permitted the taxes
which funded more services and hence more legitimacy.
Legitimacy declined again in the first half of the twentieth century with the failure of
popular movements once in power, and with massive casualties in patriotic wars.
Support for the state revived on the back of post-1945 welfare-statism, only to decline yet
again in the last thirty years.
Why? Reasons suggested for this most recent decline in the power, role and legitimacy
of the nation-state include:217
Power is being passed upwards to supranational bodies via treaties and international
regulations and standards. Trans-national arrangements such as the European
Community and North American Free Trade Association are already over-riding parts
of traditional national sovereignty, eg in social and environmental policy.
Power is being passed downwards to regional authorities
World financial markets set limits on domestic fiscal and monetary policy for most
Nations have limited scope for any actions that reduce their international competitiveness
Trans-national companies determine investment partly on the basis of tax treatment and
hence there is a limit on any country’s capacity to extract tax from foreign businesses.
The talented are becoming more mobile and can choose to live where life is good and
personal tax rates are low.
McRae (1994),
Business is increasingly participating in public policy making through lobbying aimed at
influencing policy decisions.
States are finding it increasingly difficult to provide public goods such as law
enforcement (hence the rise of private security services), property and environmental
protection, regulatory structures etc. The state’s natural monopolies, postal services for
example, are eroding. Indeed, the ideal scale for providing many services is changing,
under globalisation, from national to international.
Nevertheless, the ‘territorially rigid’ nation-state continues to exist. Kennon (1995)
foresees a continuation of the current division of nations into a first, a second and a third
world, perhaps with some limited movement of nations between these categories, such
as, for example, post-Franco Spain joining the first world.
First World countries, mostly liberal democracies as in the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD), are politically stable without having to depend
on police-state methods or foreign support. They are economically advanced in terms of
such indicators of a modern economy as GDP per head, price stability, inflation rate etc.
They are socially developed in terms of education, life expectancy, public health and
other social indicators of well-being.
Second World countries are commonly in disequilibrium because they have powerful and
unrelenting internal enemies whom they control with loyal and effective police forces.
The more authoritarian second world regimes put security above principle and make no
claim to higher abstractions, eg Myanmar. Others justify and legitimate themselves on
ideological grounds or on the basis of economic success (eg the newly industrialising
countries of Asia).
Third World countries, sometimes called the South because so many are in the southern
hemisphere, are those unable to enforce their will throughout their national territories.
Many are overwhelmingly burdened by foreign debt---having to make debt repayments to
first world countries ensures that schools and hospitals cannot be built and that ever-more
resources will be sold off, exacerbating the problem further.
The quintessence of liberal democratic government (Dahl 1999) is ‘restrained’ majority
rule, that is, majority rule restrained by culture, law, custom, ‘natural’ rights to protect
minorities and the power of a range of countervailing institutions (such as churches,
unions, business, the public service, academia). It allows the individual an effective say
in running the state through a process of free election of representatives under broad
suffrage to make laws and carry out policy. The will of the people is the legitimate
source of their own collective direction. Gorer (1966) emphasises that not only is
majority rule restrained by a range of values ('whatever is taken to have rightful authority
in the direction of conduct') in a democracy, it must be if democracy is to survive; that the
attitude of ‘winner takes all’ is fatal to democracy. Government must have the consent of
all the governed. Yet many first world countries contain a growing underclass that feels
that the political process has failed it. Certainly many unemployed feel betrayed by a
society that says ‘If you try hard enough you will get a job’.So how has this happened?
Democracy’s greatest strength, having to maintain the approval of the voters, is also its
greatest weakness, namely, having to get re-elected every few years by pandering to
short-sighted and greedy voters and not take account of future voters, non-voters etc.
Single-issue parties can exert a disproportionate influence. Liberal democracies seem
incapable of pre-empting (anticipating? forestalling?) or even seriously debating
problems and, moreover, tend to overreact when they do eventually respond. The reason
has been neatly diagnosed as `pluralistic stagnation' (Lindblom 1959, 1965) wherein
competing interest groups continually nullify each other: whatever is proposed by one
group is commonly against the interests of some other organised group and therefore
vigorously opposed.
Contributing to the `log jam' in many cases is the built-in unwillingness of contending
parties to compromise, to moderate their demands. It is proposals which threaten only a
diffuse and unorganised public interest which best stand to succeed! Mancur Olson
(1982) talks about distributional coalitions or special-interest groups that are willing to
sacrifice large national gains to obtain small gains for themselves. Still, while liberal
‘representative’ democracies have become increasingly vulnerable to sectional interests
in recent decades, they face little internal threat of being taken over through the ballot
box by non-democratic groups such as religious fundamentalists or US-style ‘patriots’.
The numbers of such are too small.
Of more concern is the prospect of some liberal democracies becoming authoritarian
police states---as a response to deepening intractable divisions within the society, along
with the loss of both sovereignty and legitimacy. Where such divisions are geographic
(eg Quebec in Canada, Scotland in the United Kingdom), dissociation might be the way
forward, but where, say, 20 percent of the community forms a diffuse underclass, Rio de
Janeiro-style ‘war’ and terrorism in the cities (van Creveld 1991) is foreseeable.
Beginning signs can be seen in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle in the United
Kingdom and in Los Angeles and New York in US.
But even where democracies are not deeply and intractably divided to the point of being
threatened by violence and its repression, or not threatened at the ballot box by antidemocratic minorities, they are still threatened by ‘creeping bureaucratisation’. Kennon
(1995) sees the rise and fall of nation-states as dependent on the interplay between the
political sector, the bureaucratic or managerial sector and the private sector. The political
sector is essentially confrontationist and that is inefficient. He notes that economically
successful states of recent times are those where the bureaucracy and its specialists are
able to concentrate on facilitating the activities of the private sector and solving
‘technical’ problems. He conjectures that first world countries intent on retaining that
status, but bedevilled by pluralistic stagnation or gridlock, will gradually turn more and
more decisions over to bureaucrats and specialists. The increasing role of economists is a
good example of the erosion of authority by technical competence. Interest groups would
not then be able to play the same role as they do now in influencing government
decisions. Concurrently, the core business of government stands to move from the
provision of services to the administration of service provision.
The political sector would not disappear in such a ‘post democratic world’, nor would it
cease to have important functions: it would legitimise bureaucratic actions just as a
monarchy can legitimise parliament; it would act as an ombudsman for individuals and as
umpire for disputes between bureaucracies; it would channel violent tendencies into
harmless theatre (as sport does); and, if things went really wrong, it could reassert itself
as an authority of last resort.
Ecological and social well-being
The most recent decades of the Common Era have also been the time when the
potentially catastrophic ecological consequences of economic growth have begun to
emerge, eg climate change, fisheries depletion, deforestation, soil degradation, species
loss, air and water pollution. Economic growth is an abstraction and, more concretely,
the environmental and ecological impact of human society is largely a function of
population size and rate of energy use per head of population, both of which have been
increasing rapidly since the industrial revolution
It is widely accepted that even though total fertility rates are falling in many countries,
world population is likely to rise from 6.7 billion to more than 9.2 billion in 2050.
Notwithstanding, declining fertility rates in all parts of the world now make it likely that
human population growth will come to an end over the course of this century.218 So,
while world population is growing, it is now doing so at a much slower rate (1.2 per cent
per annum) than in the mid-20th century (2 per cent per annum) and, because of
increasing longevity and decreasing fertility, the world’s population is ageing. The
average age of the world’s people will rise from the present 28 to 41 years old in 2100,
with the proportion of people over 60 years old increasing from 9.2 per cent to 25.5 per
As well as growing and ageing, the world’s population is urbanising and moving. The
percentage of the world’s population living in cities will rise from 50 per cent today to 70
per cent in 2050 according to UN projections. More and more cities will be megacities of
over ten million residents, most with a majority living in dystopic slums. One threatening
consequence of increased urbanisation and increased interactions between societies is that
the world community becomes one big disease pool. While being a ‘global village’
Lutz W and Qiang R 2002 Determinants of human population growth Philosphical
Transactions of the Royal society B Volume 357, Number 1425/September 29, 2002
… The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century: New Challenges for Human
Capital Formation and Sustainable Development edited by Wolfgang Lutz, Warren C.
Sanderson, and Sergei Scherbov. Earthscan, 2004. 341 pages
means that there are no longer susceptible unexposed local populations waiting to be
drastically reduced by diseases new to them (eg the Australian Aborigines after white
settlement), it also means that a virulent new disease could drastically reduce the world
population (McNeill 1979). Or, less apocalyptically, pandemics of cholera, yellow fever
and plague are ever-present possibilities.
The large migrations that took place between the core countries of the First World after
World War 2 seem to have come to an end. The 21st century stands to be one of
movement of people from poor to rich countries and, indeed, the first wave of peripheral
(Third World) peoples has already arrived in the First World. Differences in population
growth rates are already generating strong migratory pressures, especially between
proximate rich and poor countries such as China and Japan or eastern and western
Europe. Under the combined influences of population growth, the disruptions of climate
change and competition for basic resources, it is not difficult to foresee population
movements more massive than the world has ever known. There can be little doubt that
friction between natives and foreigners will be a major factor in the politics, global and
national, of the next decades. Eventually, the problem of how to keep world population
stable will have to be faced.
Global energy use continues to climb in step with increasing Gross World Product per
capita and increasing population. Since 2000 there has actually been a cessation or
reversal of earlier declining trends in the energy intensity of GDP (joules of primary
energy use per dollar of GDP) and the carbon intensity of energy use.220 In the First
World, it is increases in the per capita supply of usable energy which allow people to
make use of an ever-growing suite of social, material, cognitive and communicative
technologies in their personal lives and in their social roles. Thus, technological
advances in transport and communications have ‘virtually annihilated time and distance.’
Technologies which allow fossil energy to be substituted for human labour have
dramatically increased productivity and reduced workforces in food production and
manufacturing industry; and allowed the service industries workforce to grow. Worldagriculture has become highly dependent on artificial fertilizers that are produced by
energy-intensive methods. Computer-based information technologies have amplified our
ability to access and manipulate information. And so on.
The ecological consequences of ongoing economic growth will not make the world
uninhabitable for humans but will change the everyday environments in which people
Michael R. Raupach, Gregg Marland, Philippe Ciais, Corinne Le Quéré, Josep G.
Canadell, Gernot Klepper, and Christopher B. Field Global and regional drivers of
accelerating CO2 emissions, PNAS published online May 22, 2007;
Michael R. Raupach, Gregg Marland, Philippe Ciais, Corinne Le Quéré, Josep G. Canadell,
live and perhaps reduce the carrying capacity (numbers that can be supported) of the
globe considerably. Many societies will have to be fundamentally reorganised. In the
long run, a balance will have to be struck between humanity, the (renewable) resources it
consumes and the effect of its activities on the environment. Nobody knows, and few
dare speculate how this is to be done, and at what level of population, technology and
consumption such a permanent balance would be possible. One thing however is
undeniable: such a balance would be incompatible with a world economy based on the
unlimited pursuit of profit in capitalist economies of the type now existing.
Changes in social character and identity
If a Cro-Magnon baby from 20 000 years ago were to materialise in a First-World
maternity ward tomorrow, there is no reason to think that s/he would not grow up to be a
more-or-less ‘normal’ member of the community. Equally, today’s 50-year olds could
have fitted into their parents’ or grandparents’ society, provided that they were socialised
and educated from birth in that earlier society.
If a well-informed young adult from the First-World urban middle class were to ‘time
travel’ from 1970 to 2010, they would be struck immediately by changes in the product
mix, the job mix and the technology mix. Equally, recognising continuity as well as
evolution, they would appreciate that the physical economy could still be described in
terms of such ‘mixes.’ They would note the increased use of capital and energy intensive
technologies (transport and farming are good examples), the growth of sophisticated
service industries (medicine and pharmaceuticals are good examples), the further
disaggregation and specialisation of worker tasks, the pervasiveness of new informationcommunication technologies, the relative decline of ‘wet and heavy’ industries, the
emerging of new ‘knowledge’ industries based on, for example, alternative energy,
biotechnologies, manufacturing nanotechnologies. They would be overwhelmed by the
ever-growing range of elaborate consumer products being produced by ‘footloose’
industries scattered around the world. On matters less economic, one might guess that
our time-traveller would be greatly surprised by the collapse of Soviet communism and
the ubiquity of the perception that climate change is upon us. And they would feel at
home with perennial worries about world population growth, pollution and violence
(although not with the contemporary fear of terrorism). A list such as this gives no more
than the flavour of course of a culture which, by historical standards, is changing at
unprecedented speed.
But, what if we are looking for insights into how people’s minds, their ‘mental capital,’
may have altered during these same feisty decades---such things as their attitudes, values,
norms, beliefs, sense of identity, their ‘objective’ knowledge? Where do we start? Has
there been little change? Have past trends simply continued, or have there been abrupt
shifts? Is forty years too short a time to detect changes anyway? Are generalisations
even possible?
A good place to start is with Eric Fromm’s idea of social character.221 Fromm was a
cultural materialist who, sixty years ago, argued that it is character that leads a person to
act according to the dictates of practical necessity and also, of equal importance, it is
what gives him/her psychological satisfaction from so doing. That is, people develop the
very traits that make them desire to act as they have to act if they are to function as
members of their society. Social character or ‘the socially typical character’ is an
extension of the idea of individual character, namely, that in a slowly changing culture, a
majority of people come to acquire a common set of character traits, a ‘collective
mentality.’ As with individual character, social character internalises what is externally
necessary and thus harnesses willing human energy to the tasks of a given economic and
social system, tasks that reflect how that society is organised to meet the needs of its
Here, in ground that has been regularly tilled by psychologists, sociologists and others,
we have space but to comment, speculatively and impressionistically, on a few aspects of
the dialectical interplay between socio-economic organisation and social character; and to
indicate something of the process by which social character has changed historically and
is changing now.
Fromm’s protégé, David Riesman, focussing particularly on the United States, detected a
shift there in the mid-20th century from an inner-directed social character, guided by
strongly internalised values and a sense of direction towards an other-directed social
character guided by a search for the approval of others.223 He finds little place in
American society for his third category, tradition-directed social character. People in
tradition-directed societies are largely guided by custom and habit and share a somewhatlimited range of similar ideas and perceptions. Decision-making in traditional societies is
not adaptable and the viability of such societies declined under the unstable conditions
and turmoil of the late Bronze Age. This is, partly, why, in the ‘axial age’ of the first
millennium BCE, traditional societies began to be replaced with societies where decisionmaking was guided more by new religions and, in the case of Greek society, by rational
self-consciousness. People of the time began to recognise and actively develop their own
individual identities (I am a …), a process of individuation, differentiation from the
group, which soon stalled but which resumed again with the coming of the European
Renaissance and Reformation.
European society became more complex as it emerged from feudalism and the Middle
Ages. And with that complexification came a corresponding increase in the number of
ways that individuals could be identified, i.e. distinguished from each other in terms of
their socially-relevant characteristics. Across Europe, blocks of individuals became
Fromm, E (1942) Fear of Freedom, Routledge and Kegan Paul , London. Appendix
Character and the Social Process
222 MacCoby, Michael (2002) 'Toward a Science of Social
Character', International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 11:1, 33 - 44
223 Riesman D (1950, 1961) The Lonely Crowd Yale University Press, New Haven
increasingly distinguishable from each other in terms of, particularly, occupation,
nationality, language, religion, education and political beliefs.
Nonetheless, identity had not thereby become a matter of choice and individual identities
were certainly not unique. People of all classes had little choice but to accept the
identities bestowed on them by society and most played their part in reproducing their
societies. Social character found its expression in a largely uncritical acceptance of ‘our’
nation-state, monarchy, established religion, cultural practices, mercantile capitalism, etc.
All such had become associated with positive emotions. There was widespread respect
for the authority of these institutions and, because a majority had similar values, social
solidarity and cohesiveness were high. From a psychological perspective, being among
people of similar social character satisfies the individual’s need to belong.
Equally, there was a leavening minority who, from the Reformation onwards, wanted
these core institutions reformed to become less authoritarian, less constraining, more
participatory, more equitable, more reasoned. Political liberals and religious freethinkers
were seeking the autonomy and the right, within limits, to order their lives and express
their beliefs in ways that seemed good to them. And this is what eventually happened.
Despite the resistance of conservative and reactionary established-interests, the 18th
century was a century of enlightenment and revolution, both political and industrial. The
spread of political rights at this time can be viewed as the ‘invention’ of a social
technology for ameliorating the danger of society’s identity-conferring institutions
igniting social unrest.
The 18th century was also one in which, reflecting the commercial interests and deep
influence of industrialists, the economic doctrine of laissez faire (‘free’ markets) and the
related social doctrine of individualism came to be widely accepted. Social character was
again following the ‘requirements’ of the economy. The perspective of individualism is
that the state, rather than being seen as a means for collectively pursuing the common
good (collectivism), is to be limited to guaranteeing conditions under which the individual
can pursue hir own self-interest and make of hirself whatever hir talents and abilities will
allow (sometimes called self-actualisation). It is further assumed that those requisite
conditions are minimal. The conundrum for a society seeking to be adaptable yet stable
is that while individualism promotes individual initiative, innovation and responsibility,
there is, without a concept of the common good, nothing to bind the body politic together,
nothing to underwrite cooperation. Thus, a see-sawing struggle for political dominance
between individualism and collectivism in some form remains the central feature of
politics to this day. And an individual’s attitudes towards this duality remain an
important dimension of hir identity.
In the 19th century most aspects of most people’s identities, whether they lived in a core
society or a peripheral society, continued to be structurally imposed. That is, short of
alienation and rejection, people had little or no choice as to their nationality or religion or
occupation, notwithstanding that these sometimes changed haphazardly, eg finding
oneself a citizen of a newly-formed nation-state or a conscript in an old one. The spread
of unregulated labour markets did little to expand employment options for the working
class. Most industrial workers and peasants had neither the income nor the discretionary
time nor the social space to individuate in any significant way. Indeed, for most,
individuation would have been a concept with little meaning.
However, for the urban middle classes in the industrialising countries, genuine identitydefining choices were beginning to appear. Males could aspire to a white collar or even
professional career. Within the confines of Christianity one could choose between
Catholicism and a variety of Protestant denominations. People were somewhat freer to
make their own choice of spouse. Politically, one could be a socialist, a liberal or a
conservative. Post-school education was often available to those wanting it. Informed by
newspapers and a proliferation of books, one could take a position on big issues like
evolution, the abolition of slavery, child labour, poverty, the class system, votes for
women. And there was a modest space for a variety of hobbies and pastimes. People
were free to migrate to the New World; or just move to another city. The right, and
even the need, to individuate in a ‘free’ society where so much was changing was
accepted, albeit reluctantly by those seeking to protect traditional values.
In practice people’s choices were strongly correlated with and restricted by their parents’
identities, e.g. there was little mobility between social classes. Notwithstanding, Western
society in the 19th century was differentiating into ever more pseudospecies or ‘tribes’--blocks of people with similar identities and matching social characters. While tribes
routinely fulfilled their economic and social obligations, it was becoming increasingly
recognised that, in a liberal democracy, there is also scope, inside and outside the
parliamentary system, for such social-identity groups to protect their members’ interests
and, sometimes, rework society to better meet members’ needs. The formation of labour
parties to protect and promote working class interests within the parliamentary system is
a primary example. An era of pluralistic politics, with all its possibilities for further
fragmentation of social characters and elaboration of social-identity groups was
Coal provided the primary energy surplus which allowed/ precipitated the diversification
and complexification of 19th century Western society, and hence of social character and
identity. It was a surplus which, starting as profits in manufacturing industry, filtered
down into a range of new technologies that restructured the product mix and the job mix.
Apart from industrial technologies per se, and the social technologies that were
restructuring governance and capitalism, there were several technologies which seem to
have been of generic significance in allowing/ encouraging an expansion in the spectrum
of personal identities and lifestyles observable in ordinary people. These were
telegraphy, the rail network, the typewriter, paper made from wood pulp, cheap postage
and the lighting, by gas and electricity, which made night life possible. Positive attitudes
towards these innovations easily became part of social character in the Western world.
The invention of the telephone in the 1880s and radio broadcasting in the 1890s
introduced radically different ways of projecting speech through space. The gramophone
allowed speech to be projected in time but it was a mechanical invention rather than
electronic like the much-later tape recorder. Television was a prosthesis which allowed
both speech and bodily presence to be projected in space and time (and allowed an
extended field of vision). Marshall McLuhan has argued that these new technologies
effected a major shift in the way people think and behave, that we are returning to the
oral-aural culture of traditional societies.224 We are spending much more time talking to
each other and relatively less time reading and writing. More than that, he says, the
world has become, in his famous phrase, a “global village” where radio and television
have created a shared mythic structure (Hollywood?) and a collective mind, a global-wide
social character.
But, we might ask, has electronic technology changed the way we think by changing the
way we read-write? The answer is probably No. There is no doubt that word processors,
hypertext, voice recognition technology, searchable electronic libraries etc have ramped
up the efficiency and the reach with which we both read and write. But it is hard to see
that our thinking processes differ from those of our grandparents. Just to be clear here,
what we think about is obviously different---we live in a different world.
Fossil-oil joined coal as a primary energy source in the 20th century. Internal combustion
engines transformed a range of industries, directly and indirectly, and, for many people,
their employment, their social character, their lifestyle and their identity. As noted, one
particularly important reason why coal remained an important primary energy source was
its increasing use in coal-fired power stations for generating electricity, a highly flexible
form of secondary energy. For example, the spread of telephony and broadcasting in the
first half of the 20th century and computer-based information processing and the Internet
in the second half has depended on the availability of reticulated electricity; as have many
other domestic and industrial technologies to which people have adapted.
The rate of cultural-technological change, while not directly measurable, has surely been
increasing since the start of the cultural eon, and has probably been increasing at an
increasing rate with the increasing use of, first, coal, and then oil. New technologies have
emerged and diffused and co-evolved to the extent that they have been found useful.
Particularly in the last hundred years, the product-technology mix in First World
economies has relentlessly self-reorganised into paths that use more energy.
What has this ‘long century’ of oil and electricity meant for social character and for the
individuation of identities? In general people have, more or less willingly, done what has
been necessary to reproduce (maintain) the society they find themselves in, i.e. the
concept of social character remains broadly valid in the 20th-21st century as in earlier
times. First, people have learned, and updated as necessary, the multitude of skills
demanded by an economy producing an ever-changing basket of goods and services.
Second, they have been willing to use their incomes to purchase the basket of goods on
offer, thereby keeping supply and demand in approximate balance. And when there has
Gutenberg Galaxy
been a mismatch between production and consumption needs, during recessions for
example, social character has not broken down. In practice of course the basket of goods
on sale is changing ‘dialectically’ in response to business perceptions of what will be
profitable and consumer perceptions of what will satisfy their ‘needs’.
This high-energy period has also been one in which, through opportunity and necessity,
populations have become more finely divided in terms of both social and personal
identities. There are more ways to be different, both in terms of the groups people can
see themselves belonging to and in the activities which they might undertake as
individuals. Individuals create a multi-faceted social identity for themselves by
identifying with and accepting roles within various social groups which have their own
established attitudes, norms etc. Depending on social context, the individual moves
amongst this suite of roles.
The group which has most notably attained social identity (as well as richer personal
identities for its members) in the last century is women. An increased role for women in
the labour force has co-evolved with the product-technology mix, particularly with the
decline of manual work and the rise of service work. From the fifties, innovations like
processed food and the contraceptive pill have given women more options for balancing a
domestic role and paid employment. Improvements in the status and independence of
women have in turn redefined role and identity for many males, e.g. around parenting.
Other categories of individuals who have acquired a public social identity, and are
recognised as having a collective political voice (voices) include ethnic groups, sexualidentity groups, disabled people, sufferers from various diseases, sporting groups, cultural
groups, consumer groups…the list goes on.
Postmodern people
Societal change can always be seen as standing in a dialectical relationship to the ‘history
of ideas.’225 When the ideology governing the management of most first world
economies lurched from Keynesian interventionism to something much closer to ‘free
market’ liberalism in the early 1970s, it triggered cascades of substantive change in the
technology-product-job mix, income distributions, the distribution of economic activity
around the world and employment conditions. In terms of impact on social character, this
ending of the post-war ‘golden age’ saw the revival, rapid spread and acceptance of two
perspectives--- 19th century individualism and economism. Economism is the philosophy
that, because people are primarily strivers after material gain (sic), governments should
give priority to economic considerations when making policy decisions. Neo-liberals
make the further assumption that material gain will be higher in a fully commodified
economy and society than under any other form of social organisation. Commodification
occurs when an activity involving production, exchange, saving, or borrowing is newly
monetized and, consequently, becomes tradeable---just as the commodification of land,
labour and capital made industrial capitalism possible. In post-1970 markets, where there
Berger and Luckmann p128
have been a declining number of societal constraints on what commodities can be traded,
commodification, because it promises profits, has grown in many, often-new, areas, e.g.
producing children. Privatisation is a form of commodification in which governments
sell publicly-owned assets such as land, physical infrastructure and service agencies to
profit-seeking private corporations.
The enthusiastic assimilation of these perspectives by individuals, governments and
corporations since, say, 1970, has had major impacts, positive and negative, on the
quality of life and psychosocial wellbeing of citizens of Western ‘post-industrial postmodern’ societies. In terms of material wellbeing there has been a ‘hollowing out’ of the
middle class, meaning increasing proportions of rich and poor, but with the incomes of
the poor declining in relative rather than absolute terms.226 As the willingness and ability
of the state to provide people with proper education, health services, security, transport,
housing etc has been declining, social character has, for a large group, been responding
by becoming entrepreneurial, hard working, information-rich, socially apathetic,
apolitical, self-promoting, socially interactive and self-sufficient. These are traits wellsuited to finding a role in a commodified society and to reaping material benefits
therefrom. For those with sufficient income, a market society offers a multitude of
painless and enjoyable ways to be different from others, i.e, to individuate. Many goods
and services formerly provided through the state can be bought in a market society.
But what of the ‘cultural laggards’ who have resisted or have not been adaptable enough
to take on a postmodern, market-oriented social character? One such group is those
older people who, having previously adapted to or grown up in a more collectivist
society, have found themselves unwilling to accept the thin social contract implied by a
society committed to individualism and economism. Another group left behind in what
has become a runaway society is the slow learners, particularly those who cannot acquire
the increasingly specialised knowledge and skills that contemporary employment so often
demands. A third group has not so much resisted adapting but rather has been excluded a
priori, either deliberately (eg prison inmates) or through lack of opportunity, e.g.
minority groups, the socially disadvantaged.
Isaiah Berlin is known for his observation that “the history of thought and culture is …a
changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating
straitjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new emancipating and, at the same
time, enslaving concepts.”227 There are signs that this reflexive, dialectical process is
already operating on the ideas that captured First World thinking in the 1970s, namely,
that individualism and free markets could rescue the stagflating economies of the time
and produce high quality of life for most people. Now, thirty-plus years later, there is a
widening conviction that neo-liberalism has been given a generous opportunity to rise to
Dollar, D and Kraay, A, 2001, Growth is Good for the Poor World Bank Policy
Research Working Paper No. 2587, Washington DC
Berlin 1962 quoted in Bernstein 1991 p51
this promise but has significantly failed. The perception is more than one of failure to
achieve what might have been; it is a rediscovery of Karl Polanyi’s conclusion about an
earlier era, namely, that by its very nature, an unregulated marketised society cannot offer
high quality of life to the bulk of its people. Consider some of the spreading perceptions
which have helped to reinforce this awakening disillusion:
A market society strikes a hard bargain. For many, it takes too much time (a) to earn the
money and then (b) to choose and buy the goods and services they have come to expect
or which they see as ‘normal.’ ‘Choice fatigue’ is a reality. For many, because of the
way work is structured, they have to spend long hours earning money to pay for services
they would otherwise have provided themselves. Many couples feel they do not have the
time to raise a family. There is little discretionary time for recreation and personal
The demands of an individualistic marketised society lead, in several ways, to a decline
in social capital, i.e. to a weakening of social networks and amicable relationships of
practical and emotional importance to the individual. For example, the need for people to
be mobile if they are to find and keep employment fragments and fractures families and
communities. The market’s presumption that one’s responsibilities to others are set by
contractual arrangements alone seeps into interpersonal relationships and militates against
altruistic, reciprocal and dutiful behaviour. People become more selfish. Participation in
community life declines. The contractual perspective diminishes loyalty between
employee and employer.
Even for people with money, their choices within the market are muddied, in the name of
competition, by dishonest, uninformative and manipulative advertising. Poor people and
people with offbeat demands are ill-served by the market system. Too often, it seems that
‘competition’ does not improve the quality, price or range of genuinely different goods
and services on offer.
Economics becomes the dominant discourse in a marketised society. For example,
politics is no longer the crucible in which people struggle to define and control their
destinies; politics is more a debate amongst the few on how to manage society to
facilitate the flourishing of the economy. Indeed, an economic metaphor is used to
understand politics as a ‘market’ for the votes of narrowly-focussed, and largely selfish,
interest groups. In the public arena, science, the arts and education are most commonly
viewed through a cost-benefit prism. To the extent that people have to reduce themselves
to ‘saleable personalities,’ and nothing else, to compete for employment, they are forced,
metaphorically, to become commodities. In similar vein, individuality is increasingly
shaped by the commodities one purchases.
Because money matters so dominate public and private discussion, a market society is a
BORING society---a bit like someone who has only one topic of conversation. More
significantly, this monologue squeezes many important issues off the public agenda, eg
from newscasts.
A market society is a risk society, i.e. one where people recognise that they have to be
increasingly self-reliant in relation to the contingencies which lurk around employment,
health care, higher education, personal safety etc. Examples include health insurance,
borrowing to finance one’s education. Many people find they do not have the income,
the information-acquisition skills, the family-community support nor the access to trusted
advice which would allow them to feel confident that they had adequately protected
(insured) themselves against life’s contingencies. People with specialist skills are as
vulnerable to unemployment as the unskilled in a rapidly changing market economy.
For many, the result of feeling that they are not coping is anxiety, a fear of the freedom
which an individualistic, marketised society offers and demands. In turn, anxiety
frequently leads to disabling depression. Consequently, there is a degree of support for
the idea that the social contract needs to be rewritten to ensure that the state carries more
of each individual’s life risks. Presumably this means more than revisiting the post-war
welfare state and more than the push for individualisation of responsibilities so
characteristic of neo-liberal governments.228
The aggressive individualism of the Postmodern era has in part been an understandable
reaction to people’s post-war fears of being swamped in a mass society.229 But it has led
to a loss of faith in collective action. Notably, people have lost faith in the state’s
capacities, including its ability to deal with big problems which affect the individual’s life
but about which the individual can do little, eg war, climate change. Partly because of the
state’s ready support for business interests over the public interest, there is a loss of faith
in the state’s willingness and capacity to pursue social justice. The rhetoric of market
ideologists emphasises the competitive aspects of capitalism and overlooks its equally
important cooperative aspects. People translate their experience of this perspective in
their economic life into their social relationships, ie these become rivalrous. In many
spheres, an intensely competitive ethos is wasteful, suspicious and destructive; and, also,
it is often unfair in the sense that ‘winners’ are lucky as often as they are clever or
Trust in the honesty of others tends to decline in an individualistic society, eg not trusting
strangers, politicians, spokespeople for institutions, media stories, bureaucrats etc... This
is a natural consequence of the idea that individuals have few responsibilities to others.
Regular exposure of corrupt practices, people not playing by the rules, further
undermines trust.
Erosion of authority is another feature of increasingly individualistic societies. People
have become less willing to be guided in their behaviours and beliefs by the judgements,
assertions, wishes and commands of ‘authorities,’ particularly the traditional authorities
228 Giddens,
Giddens A. 1991. M odernityand Self-Identity. Polity, Cam bridge; Baum an, Z. 1992.
Intimations ofPostmodernity. Routledge, London.
229 (Gleason 1982 e-library)
of church, state, family, community and ‘experts.’ A general consequence here is that
people become less able to predict the other’s behaviour and hence the ‘other’ becomes
more threatening. Social cohesiveness is lost. In the family, parents are less able to
successfully hand on knowledge of social behaviours; other-directed adolescents are
learning more from their peer groups. Traditional religion has lost its capacity to
mobilise large segments of society through its systems of real and perceived rewards and
punishments. People do not listen to politicians. Ironically, the collapse of the Soviet
state and its threat to the West probably weakened the internal authority of Western
Declining faith in most sorts of experts in the Postmodern era has coincided with a rise in
postmodernism, the aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, as the case may be,
whose central feature is suspicion of all claims and a wariness about making any claims
at all. Caveat emptor! Postmodernism is based on the recurring anti-Enlightenment,
anti-reason idea that knowledge can come only from personal experience, not from
deductive or abductive reasoning (sic). Expertise in science, this being the search for
universal knowledge, has come under particular attack, eg evolutionary biology. More
generally, this loss of faith in expert knowledge has led to a decline in people’s awareness
of the ideas that have shaped contemporary understanding of the world. Among other
consequences, that further erodes people’s confidence in who they are.
Clearly, it is not easy to make generalisations as to how the mentalities of First World
people have changed through the Postmodern Era. It is being suggested here that, since
the early 1970s, many have taken on a social character, a body of attitudes and beliefs,
which has helped them to participate willingly and successfully in societies which
became more marketised and individualistic than the slower-moving, more sociable
mixed economies of the post-war ‘golden age.’ But, it is also being suggested that,
during the last decade or so, a perception has been growing that individualistic and
weakly-regulated market societies threaten individual and social wellbeing in important
ways, viz. the points above.
This then is where we are now. While the First World’s dominant paradigm is not under
immediate threat, one might ask whether these perceptions of its weaknesses are
spreading at an increasing rate. Has support for the dominant paradigm peaked? Has
there been an increase in antipathy towards those questioning the dominant paradigm?
Conversely, are the disillusioned alienated and actively hostile? Are any antithetic
alternatives to the dominant paradigm emerging? Are people behaving differently as they
come to recognise various weaknesses in the dominant paradigm?
Such questions can only be answered impressionistically here. A society’s belief systems
tend to change only when they clearly fail and when, as well, there are plausible
alternatives to hand. It may be that the confluence of climate change, peak oil, religious
fundamentalism, nationalism, resentment of exploitation, economic instability, species
extinctions, pollution, stubborn poverty, loss of sociality etc. will destroy the
individualistic marketised societies that have characterised the First World for decades.
But, to date, the only alternative being envisaged at global and national scales is a gentler,
more-regulated capitalism, a tamed capitalism, a less dynamic capitalism. Socialism is
discredited for the moment and there are no plausible scenarios for a return to much
earlier forms of governance and economy. Examples of the sorts of marginal changes
being canvassed within existing political structures include the protection/expansion of
political and other rights (e.g. who is a citizen?) and, in general, check-and-balance
constraints on the capacity of the more-powerful to exploit the less-powerful, e.g.
consumer protection legislation.
But elsewhere, in their personal and inter-personal lives, more and more people are
making adjustments they see as promising to better meet their priority needs. The
reference is to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of human needs which sees
people as striving to satisfy received physiological and psychological needs for life,
safety and security, for belongingness and affection, for esteem, for respect and selfrespect and for self-actualisation (personal development, realisation of latent
potentialities). 230 As more basic needs (eg food) are met, attention switches, in a
hierarchical fashion, to satisfying higher needs (eg for creative activity). A need, in
general, is ‘that which persons must achieve if they are to avoid sustained and serious
The notion of a needs hierarchy leads directly to the idea that a person enjoying high
quality of life is someone who is largely able to satisfy his or her higher needs. This
complements the suggestion, from ecologist Charles Birch, that quality of life is
measured by a person’s feelings that their potentialities for creative activities and
relationships with others are being satisfied.231 As a general and uncontroversial
assertion, most contemporary individuals, tacitly or overtly, have the enjoyment of a
‘better’ life, as an umbrella goal. Within the opportunities and constraints inherent in the
societies they live in, people make more or less rational choices as to how to satisfy their
People of the Postmodern era who are seeking to ameliorate stresses that come with
trying to live out the social character required for full participation in a marketised
individualistic society are adjusting their behaviours and attitudes in various ways,
several of which we can note:
Downshifting is a response to the challenge of balancing income, work and leisure. It
involves moving to a lower-paid job where hours are shorter or the work more
meaningful or the lifestyle possibilities more attractive/ less expensive. Or it could
involve early retirement. Downshifting implies a reduced willingness to compete for
status and its symbols and an increased determination to take greater control over the
construction of one’s life story (self-actualisation) and the formation of one’s identity
Maslow needs theory
Birch reference
(who am I?). For example, downshifters are less likely than others to use consumer
goods as markers of their identity.
Joining non-traditional, non-family groups and networks. In societies where relocation is
common, joining can be viewed as people creating new ‘tribes’ to replace the lost tribes
of family and community. Also, new communications technologies allow geographically
dispersed people to form interest groups. Joining can satisfy a need to belong to a
supportive group of like-minded people. Also, being a member of a group becomes part
of one’s identity. Some groups, particularly ethnic groups, strengthen their sense of
identity by actively rejecting outsiders. Joining groups with anti-social tendencies (eg
street gangs) may reflect alienation from or a rejection of mainstream society. Joining
‘activist’ groups may be a conscientious response to matters of social concern, e.g.
joining environmental groups, human rights groups. Outside formal organisations,
people apparently benefit from joining crowds (eg at sporting events) and participating in
episodes of mass emotion, eg mourning Princess Diana.232
Because they represent ‘authorities’ that have lost legitimacy, or that have already been
rejected in an expression of individualism, it is becoming less popular for lonely, otherdirected people to join ‘traditional’ institutions like national political parties and
mainstream churches. Instead, there is a trend towards becoming politically active at a
local rather than at some higher level and a tendency to join new and splinter religious
organisations. These latter include fundamentalist congregations, cults and new-age
religions. For the many people who have found they feel increasingly alone and without
guidance under the freedom of an individualistic society, these new religious forms offer
strong authority, strong support, strong structure and a strong sense of belonging.
There is a joke which says that when you give people freedom to be themselves they
promptly imitate others! This is particularly true of the young in a permissive, everchanging society where parental guidance is weak. Adolescents and immature adults, not
having a developed knowledge of their real identity options, and deeply wanting to
belong, are strongly influenced by their peers and by media celebrities.
Rethinking individuation is a more fundamental adjustment to postmodernity than
downshifting or joining if we think of these as strategies for treating symptoms of stress in
contemporary society.
Even within the constraints of being a willing and conforming member of a marketoriented individualistic society there is adequate scope for people to individuate, at least
in the superficial sense of being readily distinguishable from each other. For example,
people differ in employment classification, specialist knowledge, general knowledge,
purchases, family arrangements, hobbies, belief systems…as well as the basics of gender,
age, ethnicity, and nationality. Everyone is different under any such dissection.
Gustav Le Bon
But, having a unique identity compatible with compliant membership of a society whose
values are oriented to marketisation and individualism does not provide sufficient
individuation for many people. Even with the adoption of ameliorating strategies, many
(particularly the better-educated?) find that their spectrum of needs is not adequately met.
Or, indeed, is actively frustrated. In particular, given individualism’s nihilistic tendency
to question all external authority, it is ironic when it is perceived that an ideology built on
individualism and marketisation is just as much an authority-source waiting to be
questioned as any religion, world view, social contract or expert opinion.
For those who do not lose their nerve when they realise that there is no external authority
that can legitimately tell them how to live their lives, those whose character is more
inner-directed than other-directed perhaps, the option exists to impose one’s own order on
life. This is the existential challenge and various responses to it are possible. An
increasingly common response is to conceptualise one’s identity, not as a ‘given,’ but as a
life story, a biography, which is under continuous construction. Under this thinking, selfactualisation becomes a series of tasks for which one takes responsibility and undertakes
to learn to perform competently. The aim is to consciously mould yourself into a person
with a life story, a character and a personality. Satisfaction comes from the feeling of
having done your best to meet your needs, subject to your life circumstances.
Notwithstanding, a significant part of any life story lies in how one has negotiated the
everyday pit-traps of a risk society. And it is here that First World governments, faced
with increasing numbers of people who are not amenable to guidance from the state or
who are not competent risk-managers, have been experimenting with more actively
creating environments in which people can learn to be self-reliant and want to contribute
to their marketised society. One approach, epitomised by the British Labour Party’s
‘third way,’ is through the use of a tacit social contract, based not on duty or morality, but
on quasi-contractual rights and responsibilities.233 People are expected to engage with
society (e.g. to work) and to look after themselves while government is expected to
provide the resources which people can use to upgrade their survival skills. It is a social
contract which is still very much under negotiation. That is to say, both government and
governed are open to adjusting their behaviours. Indeed, prominent sociologists,
including Zygman Bauman and Anthony Giddens, are seeing collective action as
increasingly mediated through and by the needs and demands of individuals.234
Now, with relations between the collective and its members still coevolving, our quick
trip through the last 2000 years is complete. We have come to a point where we have
accumulated sufficient historical material to think about the Common Era more broadly.
[[[[Anomie (Durkheim) the idea that the individual can suffer from having too much
freedom, from being too little regulated by social institutions limit on individuation in
any society
Giddens third Way
Bauman (1992) giddens (1991) and and Beck& Beck-Gernsheim (2002),
In the previous chapter, which took us to the beginning of the Common Era, it was
suggested that the evolution of human ecosystems, call it eco-cultural evolution, can be
understood as a narrative [[play??]]][[?]] in which a changing cast of interacting
pseudospecies (populations of humans with common interests) uses changing suites of
interdependent technologies (material, social, communicative and cognitive) to secure
their survival and wellbeing in a changing environment. It was also flagged that several
functional groups of technologies already in use at the beginning of the Common Era
would continue to be widely used, up till the present day. These included the growth and
spread of population, urbanisation, trade, warfare and systematic technological
This simple qualitative model of cultural evolution, a conceptualisation based largely on
the idea of co-evolution between pseudospecies, technologies and environments, has
worked well for contemporary anthropologists studying stability and change in traditional
societies such as the horticulturalists of Papua New Guinea’s highland valleys.235 Many
traditional societies are simple enough and historically-stable enough to allow the chains
of effects of recent technology-introductions such as, in Papua New Guinea for example,
shotguns and steel axes, colonial administration and Christianity, to be traced piece-wise
through time. What is being suggested here is that the evolution of the global human
ecosystem over the Common Era has followed, but more complexly, and more grandly,
the same co-evolutionary model.
In concrete terms, new technologies or novel applications of existing technologies or
shifts in environmental parameters or the emergence of new pseudospecies will,
sometimes, initiate sequences of adaptive changes which have major consequences for
(and this is what we are interested in) the well-being of large numbers of people, either
immediately or over time. These are the turning points of history. Mostly though, such
disturbances are quickly absorbed into the ongoing cyclical flows of material-energy in
the society where they originate; they come to nothing. In the present chapter, the macrohistory of the Common Era has been condensed to a score of discontinuities
(bifurcations) and extensive reorganisations which have each been judged to have had or
to be still having momentous consequences for global society, e.g. by shifting centres of
wealth accumulation. Two fundamental recurring themes pervade this family of pivotal
Lenski and Lenski; Ecological Theory and the Evolution of Complex Human
Communities William S. Abruzzi Advances in Human Ecology 5:111-156 (1996) (in
reorganisations. One is globalisation and the second is the accumulation of cultural
At the beginning of the Common Era most of the world’s land surface was already
occupied by communities of H. sapiens, a genetically homogeneous species whose
biology has barely changed since. From a systems perspective, the world of the time
could be divided into a core set of somewhat-interconnected Eurasian civilisations---the
Roman, Persian, Indian and Chinese empires---and a set of peripheral societies in
Oceania, the Americas, Africa and the margins of Eurasia itself. These latter had almost
no interactions amongst themselves or with the Eurasian core. To reduce the history of
the Common Era to a phrase, it has been a story of increasing interactions and exchanges
within and between those initial sets of peripheral and core societies. Today, this process
of individual societies coming together to function as a single society, not just
economically, but socially and culturally, is referred to as globalisation.
From the perspective of complex-systems science, Common-Era globalisation is,
arguably, an example of a dissipative (open) self-organising system---namely the
Eurasian core societies---growing, differentiating (specialisation of parts) and
complexifying (adding more internal and external linkages) in synchrony with an
uninterrupted increase in the rate at which that system has been capturing free energy, i.e.
energy available for doing useful work. Any non-lethal increase in the free energy
entering a dissipative system both permits and demands complexification.
Dissipative systems such as the global (i.e., human plus natural) ecosystem require stable
energy gradients on which to feed, persist and evolve. For most of the Common Era, the
major source of energy warming the Earth and sustaining-constraining the global
ecosystem has been the Sun. It is a source which has changed and is changing extremely
slowly by the measure of human history. Until the industrial era, global temperatures,
and their variability, remained remarkably constant and benign, the modest exceptions in
absolute terms (and they may have been regional rather than global) being the ‘medieval
warm period,’ the ‘little ice age’ and several ‘volcanic winters’. Measured by their
impacts on food supplies, population sizes and well-being, these phenomena were of
course far from modest.
Against this slow-moving backdrop, and until the industrial revolution, most of the
energy captured by the Eurasian core societies was solar energy which had been
transformed into food-energy stored in plants and animals. Over centuries, the small
surplus achieved by each food producer increased slowly with the spread of each lasting
advance in energy-saving (input-reducing) or yield-increasing technology. In each
society, these surpluses were collected together by the ruling pseudospecies and, after
feeding themselves, used to feed workers who could be directed into projects and
activities anticipated to enrich, protect, glorify or further empower the ruling
pseudospecies, at home or abroad---all with little concern for the wellbeing of the
majority. Notwithstanding, populations did zigzag slowly upwards. Aggregating small
surpluses under centralised control is a social technology which makes otherwiseimpracticable large-scale social technologies feasible. Such include standing armies to
manage unrest, wars to acquire resources (including energy), building religious and civil
infrastructure and producing-exporting tradeable goods.
Most trade across Eurasia in the early part of the first millennium relied on the diversion
of surplus food energy into assembling trains of pack animals for land transport and
oarsmen for sea transport. But, later in the millennium, trade between Eurasia’s main
cities grew, and grew increasingly profitable, in line with major improvements in
technologies for capturing ‘free’ wind energy to transport trade goods in sailing ships.
The sailing ship, like the computer, became an enabling technology, i.e. one which
changes the cost of completing some widespread generic task; computers process
information cheaply and sailing ships transport trade goods cheaply. Sail was the
technology which would underpin globalisation until the late 19th century when steam
ships and electro-magnetic forms of communication emerged. It allows large volumes of
goods etc to be transported over great distances, at speed and in comparative safety.
More than that, trade routes spread diseases, religions, technologies, genes and
information about foreign lands and world events. Just to emphasise the path-dependent
nature of history, we might note that if globalisation had occurred in a world without
ocean-going ships it would have been massively different.
Chinese merchants, and to a lesser extent Muslims, dominated world maritime trade
(which meant in and around Eurasia) from the 8th to the 15th century. Thereafter, it was
Europeans who, relying increasingly on sail, sought (as if) to incorporate other continents
into the Eurasian economy. In particular, sailing ships played a central role in the
explorations and colonial ventures of Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, France and Britain.
From an energetics perspective, the relatively small amount of energy captured by sails
was sufficient to trigger large and valuable flows of goods back to Europe from outposts
and colonies in the peripheral world. Indeed, so valuable was this trade that the European
nations fought each other, again and again, for control over it. The critical weapons used
in these struggles, as were those used to subdue peripheral societies who did not like their
‘terms of trade’, were guns, a technology which is effective because it can trigger the
rapid conversion of concentrated chemical energy (gunpowder) into the kinetic energy of
a speeding musket- or cannon-ball.
In ecological terms we can think of the Europeans as a pseudospecies that, early in the
Modern Era, discovered resource-rich new niches (new lands) where, by virtue of their
pre-existing material and social technologies, they were pre-adapted to out-compete and
displace the indigenous pseudospecies---Amerindians, Aboriginals, Africans etc. Natural
ecosystems too were increasingly replaced with imported agro-ecosystems. After initial
losses from conflict and imported diseases, colonial populations started to grow again,
partly as a result of importing slaves and settlers. In tandem with increases in food
imports, Europe’s population grew also.
These extensions of the European segment of the core Eurasian society into other
continents were the beginning of what Catton calls an ‘an age of exuberance’ for the
human community, a two-stage development enabled first by wind-power and then by
tapping the world’s ‘once only’ stocks of fossil energy, primarily coal and oil.236 In this
500 year era, now rapidly approaching its end, an ever-increasing throughput of ‘outside’
energy has permitted and demanded an ever-faster coevolution (mutual adaptation) of
pseudospecies, technologies and environmental components of the global human
ecosystem. Additional energy increments have been stored and circulated and dissipated
in emergent flows and structures, e.g. new industries, new customs, new consumption
patterns. At the same time, pre-existing flows of materials, energy and information have
been expanded, sub-divided and further inter-connected. In short, in line with humanity’s
accelerating use of primary energy, the human ecosystem has probably complexified at
an increasing rate throughout Havel’s Modern Era. The contemporary world contains an
infrastructure of ‘temporarily persistent’ links, both physical and institutional, which
allow people everywhere to interact (communicate, visit, learn, trade, inter-marry, fight,
spread pandemic disease etc) in a coordinated way with unprecedented ease. [[see
modularity stuff below saying that shocks spread in a connected system ]]]]]
This global infrastructure is organised hierarchically in the sense that, even now, not all
parts of the world are equally well-connected into the greater human ecosystem. Some
parts are hubs or nodes which support a more intense exchange of materials, energy and
information than elsewhere. Principally, these energy- and information-intensive nodes
are the core societies of the day, particularly the larger cities therein. But it is not a static
hierarchy. The suite of core societies and global cities has evolved over time, e.g. North
America, Japan, Germany and Russia emerged as core industrial societies in the late
Modern Era. In fact, on a rising tide of energy flows, most ongoing societies, even the
most peripheral, have increased, albeit at different speeds, the amount of energyinformation they process. [[[ Overall, the globalisation of human society is a good
example of the principle that dissipative systems which survive tend to evolve in ways
which include growth, complexification and differentiation. ]]]]]
The Koalas of Kangaroo Island
Despite their relatively low fertility, mammalian populations are still liable to outgrow
and permanently destroy their food resources. Often however, before this happens the
stimulus of overcrowding produces behavioural and physiological responses such that the
population declines, of its own accord, to a more sustainable level.237 Thus parental care
and cooperation are increasingly replaced by competition, dominance and aggressive
violence. Females and infants, the foundation for future population growth, are
disproportionately the victims of these stress-generated behaviours.
236 WJ Catton (1980) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change University of
Illinois Press, Urbana.
237 Russell C and Russell WMS, (1999) Population Crises and Population Cycles, The Galton
Institute, London. p1
In the 1920s, a small group of endangered Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) was released
on Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast. They munched their way steadily
through the stock of leaves on the island’s Eucalypts and multiplied. Today, with their
food supply nearly gone, the island’s now-large population of Koalas is on the brink of
crashing, of dying of hunger and disease. If, in the absence of intervention, that
happened, both Koala and Eucalypt populations would probably recover in time. It is a
common story in natural ecosystems for the population of a species to over-expand, to
overshoot the level which can be supported by the ongoing flow (cf. stock) of recurrent
food supplies---fresh leaf growth in the Koala case. Thomas Malthus (1798) famously
foresaw something similar for humans, namely, population growing much faster than
food production.238 That has not happened to date.
Is this Koala story a metaphor for the human situation in 2010 CE? Are oil and coal
reserves our Eucalypt woodlands? [[Like Koalas, our resource needs are specialised, not
broadly based.]] Will high population density trigger population decline?
Humans have created a global society of 6.8 billion people (and rising) which depends
ineluctably on mining the world’s stock of fossil energy, not just for food production, but
to meet a broad spectrum of human needs. Considered as part of an adaptive strategy,
this reliance on coal-oil-gas has several problems. One is that fossil-energy stocks, oil in
particular, are being depleted so rapidly that a major restructuring-destructuring of global
society within a generation or two seems certain. You can't make bricks without straw!
Either energy supplies will fall or consumption will have to be slashed to fund a massive
investment in renewable energy production. The other problem is that even if we weren’t
running out of fossil energy, it still seems inescapable that we have to curtail its use. This
is because by-products and unintended side-effects of using fossil energy at today’s rates
are threatening to trigger long-lasting global changes which will disrupt the lives of most
of the large number of people affected. Sea-level rise and climate change and its
consequences (e.g. for the distribution of ecosystems) are well-recognised here but, more
generally, as a rule of thumb, environmental modification or disruption (e.g. chemical
pollution, species extinctions) is roughly proportional to the rate of energy use (whatever
its source). We would appear to be entering a period of increasing instability (sensitivity
to disturbance) and potential for conflict between pseudospecies, one in which the
physical environment, the technology mix and the size-geography of populations are in a
co-evolutionary transition.
The global-change situation we are in deserves a special name; I suggest the Overshoot
Crisis.239 And, to survive it, my working assumption (nothing is certain) is that we will
have to pass through a contractionary bottleneck of some sort, i.e. a disorganisation and
reorganisation which will surely involve social disorder and personal trauma for many.240
Malthus T, 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, Johnson, London..
The term is adapted from William Catton’s (1980) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of
Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
As shown, the observed historical data for 1970–2000 most
History is crammed with examples of societies in which population has grown for a
period and then, for various reasons, declined rapidly, invariably associated with a
disruption of the social order. 241 What is different about the present situation is its
In the overall story of anatomically modern humans, globalisation is the first great theme
of the Common Era. Let us now review the Era’s second stand-out theme, what I will
call the accumulation of ideas.
An ongoing accumulation of ideas
Meanings are perceptions of relationships between concepts-percepts. Thus, the meaning
of ‘the expansion of meaning’ is that, over the Common Era, humans have accumulated
ever-more perceptions of how more and more concepts can be spoken of together in
grammatical sentences, e.g. light is wave-like. And, to the extent that concepts and
relationships are abstracted from actual experience, meanings are mental models of
reality. You understand when you perceive meaning. An idea is the expression of a
meaning in words. Ideas operationalise meanings by putting them in a form where they
can be communicated to others. And an idea which reduces the recipient’s uncertainty
about a meaning (narrows the range of possibilities) is information. In particular,
knowledge is information deemed useful for some purpose. A narrative or story is an
closely match the simulated results of the LtG ‘‘standard run’’
scenario for almost all the outputs reported; this scenario results
in global collapse before the middle of this century. The
comparison is well within uncertainty bounds of nearly all the
data in terms of both magnitude and the trends over time. Given
the complexity of numerous feedbacks between sectors incorporated
in the LtG World3 model, it is instructive that the historical
data compare so favorably with the model output…Please cite this article as: Turner,
G.M., A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global
Environmental Change
(2008), doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2008.05.001
Population Crises and Population cycles by Claire Russell and W M S Russell. Published
by the Galton Institute,19 Northfields Prospect, Northfield, London SW18 lPE. 1999.
extended chain of meanings connecting and ordering a series of events, facts, concepts
Each individual holds a stock of meanings which collectively constitute his or her
understanding of the world and from which he or she draws to help answer ‘what’s
happening’ and ‘what-to-do’ questions. Humanity’s stock of meanings at any time is its
cultural capital, the sum total of meanings held by all individuals plus all the retrievable
meanings stored in books and other repositories. Many meanings are shared of course
and it is because people share meanings (as ideas) that they can communicate (e.g.
transfer information) and coordinate their activities. Equally, many meanings are
contested. Dialogue and dialectical discussion are technologies which can harmonize and
align contested meanings.
As discussed earlier, all meanings and ideas carry a positive or negative emotional
‘charge’ which triggers or inhibits potential behaviour based on that meaning. In whatto-do situations the mind searches for a plan of action, an imaginary experience, which is
consistent with its understanding of relevant cause-consequence relationships and, as
well, is emotionally acceptable. It is by way of this process that ideas shape the larger
themes of history, as well as individual lives. Thus, when an emotionally powerful chain
of ideas, a ‘grand narrative’, spreads through a pseudospecies, it can trigger and energise
large shifts in collective behaviour. For example, Islam, a simple but promise-filled new
religion, gave the Arab peoples the emotional energy, the confidence perhaps, to conquer
much of Eurasia in the eighth century. Indeed, religious narratives, along with national
‘origin’ myths (e.g. Hitler’s myth of an Aryan master race, America’s myth of ‘manifest
destiny’), have consistently, throughout the Common Era, energised and legitimised wars
and the colonisation of indigenous peoples.
Once people acquire stories that explain who they are and how they should live, they
cling to them. Nonetheless, like social character, such stories do change over time as
circumstances change. For example, Jack Miles argues that Christianity represents a
pacifist revision of the Jewish myth of Yahweh, the warrior God, at a time when violence
had become an inappropriate response to the threat of oppression.242
The fact that national and religious origin-myths commonly have a limited grounding in
reality, is not the most important point to be made about them. Rather, have they helped
their adherents to survive? It is a point I take from Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution,
Religion and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson:
…people who stand outside religion often regard its
seemingly irrational nature as more interesting and
important to explain than its communal nature. Rational
thought is regarded as the gold standard against which
Miles, J, 2003 ,The Self-disarmament of God as Evolutionary Pre-adaptation, Midwest
Studies in Philosophy XXVII 153-165.
religious belief is found so wanting that it becomes well-nigh
inexplicable. Evolution causes us to think about the subject
in a completely different way. Adaptation becomes the gold
standard against which rational thought must be measured
alongside other models of thought. In a single stroke,
rational thought becomes necessary but not sufficient to
explain the length and breadth of human mentality, the socalled irrational features of religion can be studied
respectfully as potential adaptations in their own right rather
than as idiot relatives of rational thought. (pp. 122-3)
Some would-be adaptive myths contain a thinly-disguised what-to-do model as well as
evoking positive emotional signals. For example, Kipling’s idea of ‘the white man’s
burden’ was a self-serving characterization of Victorian imperialism as a noble
enterprise.243 Many Americans and a few Australians still live by the myths of their
frontier origins. Aboriginal myths which, through Dreamtime stories, accurately
represent the landscape and its behaviours exemplify, in a different way, religion as a
technology for improving survival prospects.
Impact of the scientific attitude
The essence of the scientific or objective attitude is its recognition of the provisional
nature of knowledge and the need to keep correcting meanings in light of growing
information. It extends to the further idea of scientific method, to wit, that such
information can and should be actively and systematically collected. This attitude, which
began to spread rapidly from the 16th century, has increasingly had the effect of
undermining powerful religious and national myths, including some associated with the
consequential historical shifts identified earlier in this chapter. What happens is that
ideas and narratives which are not compatible with empirical data begin to trigger
negative rather than positive emotions, irrespective of the authority of their source. The
paramount example is the impact of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species… on the JudaeoChristian creation myth. More recently, historical research has challenged many national
origin myths.244
But the contribution of the scientific attitude to the growth of meaning has been far wider
than its role in a slow world-wide trend towards replacement of supernatural and other
fanciful models of reality with objective-scientific views. For some hundreds of years
now, science or, more generally, evidence-based scholarship, has been creating whole
domains of meaning---disciplines---replete with new concepts and new relationships
between such. While all disciplines, but particularly those of the type found in
universities, contribute to the collective stock of meanings, the meanings, relationships,'s_Burden (accessed 17/06/08)
For example, Geary PJ 2002 The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe
Princeton UP
concepts and vocabularies within disciplines are of course available only to small groups
of specialists.
The contribution of the scientific attitude to the growth of humanity’s stock of
technologies---meaningful recipes---has been similarly far-reaching. Generally speaking,
technologies are retained until something sufficiently better comes along, a rare event in
pre-Modern societies. And when a ‘technologist’ is creating something better, s/he is
often building on the results of past scholarship. This is as correct for what have been the
slower-growing stocks of social, communicative and cognitive technologies as it is for
the faster-growing stock of material technologies.
While medieval minds were lively enough, they did not have the cognitive technologies
to assess the quality of an explanation. To quote Herbert Muller, medieval people
‘inferred things too easily.’245 For them, one swallow did make a summer. Neither did
the medieval mind actively seek to upgrade ideas to help it better answer ‘what’s
happening’ and ‘what-to-do’ questions, even in problematic circumstances. The very
idea that an idea might be wrong or right or improvable is unimaginable to someone who
has only ever been exposed to one ‘world view.’
In recent centuries the Modern-era mind, equipped with a more objective and exploratory
attitude, has begun to replace the uncritical medieval mind. Why? Because, so far, such
has proved more adaptive. That is to say, societies in which people have actively and
objectively searched for evidence-based meaning have been able to respond creatively to
change and opportunity. Such societies have generated and trialled a succession of
models of reality and recipes for social etc. technologies, some of which have been
selected to persist because they have satisfied perceived needs/goals of their inventors
and adopters. For example, in the world’s core societies industrial technologies have
continued to increase the wealth and power of elites even as the social technology of
democracy has erratically improved the well-being of ordinary people. In peripheral
societies, where the mind-set tends to be more medieval, the available stock of meanings
has still grown, but more slowly.
In what sense is the vast expansion of meaning that has occurred during the Common Era
an evolutionary process? Any entity is said to have evolved if it exhibits piecewise
change over time, e.g. a biological species in which the percentage of individuals
carrying a particular version of some gene changes. And while we do not have the data
or the concepts to measure them, the world’s stock of meanings is an entity which has
clearly changed in terms such as number, categories and distribution across
pseudospecies and individuals. That is, it has evolved.
But is there anything in the evolution of cultural capital corresponding to the mechanism
underlying much biological evolution, namely, the ‘selective retention of ongoing
Muller, Herbert J 1952 The Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former societies Mentor, New
York. Pp 244-50.
variation’? During biological evolution of a species, random variations (eg mutants) are
immediately tested against the reality of the bio-physical environment---is this variation
stable enough to persist here? Yes or no? There are no second chances.
In cultural evolution the starting point is another sort of variation, a variation in an
agent’s246 mental model of an idea or recipe. Any such variation is tested in imagination
for its likely success in terms of goal achievement---any relevant goal, not just immediate
reproductive success. If it passes, and is also emotionally acceptable, it can be used or
held ready for future use. If it fails, there is a second chance. The failed idea can be
deliberately reworked and rapidly re-evaluated, perhaps several times, before being put to
use. It may still fail when actually trialled of course but, as an adaptive process,
sequential innovation and testing in the mind is quicker, more energy-efficient and more
flexible than gene-based evolution. It can also, to some extent, focus purposively on
filling gaps, empty niches, in a stock of meanings, e.g. as the world complexifies under
globalisation, the number of ‘meaning’ niches grows. Metaphorically, the difference
between the two ways of selecting variation (biological and cultural) is like the difference
between selecting from a hand of cards versus dealing cards, one at a time, till a suitable
card turns up.
Progress, the god that failed
Progress means going in a particular direction but, in discussions of socio-cultural
evolution it has come to mean ‘going in a particular direction which is also a ‘good’
direction.’ In Victorian England, Charles Darwin saw evolution as continually-redirecting
and morally neutral, but for Herbert Spencer, his influential rival, evolution, including
social evolution, was progressive. "Civilisation," said Spencer, "is a part of nature; all of
a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower."247
As a result of its successes in creating new technologies (e.g. in public health, in
manufacturing) and finding evidence-based meaning in the natural world, the scientific
attitude, and natural science in particular, came to be viewed very positively in the
world’s core societies by late 19th century. The troika of scientific method, capitalism
and democracy was seen as a guarantee of sustained human progress. The perception
was that these umbrella technologies had improved and would continue to improve the
human condition. But, from about the middle of the 20th century, the prevailing attitude
towards the future became more one of ‘post-modern apprehension’.248 Negative aspects
Agency Sterelny paper in e-library An intentional agent is one whose behaviour is
determined by both beliefs and preferences (= mental models of the world ) ‘’beliefLIKE ‘’ REPRESENTATIONal states Sterelny, Kim, The Evolution of Agency and
Other Essays, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, xvi + 310 pp
Spencer 1969 (orig. 1851) Social Statics New York. Augustus M. Kelley p 65
Heilbroner R, 1995, Visions of the Future: The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, and
Tomorrow, Oxford University Press, New York.
of these three change-agents, previously unknown or unrecognised, are now perceived to
be as important as their undisputed positive effects.
Considering science specifically, it is ironic that its characteristically sceptical attitude,
that which undermined religious narratives and nationalistic-ideological beliefs, has now
spread to the point of bringing science itself into question for many people. Perceptions
of the ‘failures’ of science–technology include:
Its failure to tell a human origins story with the same emotional appeal as
religious origin-stories. While science provides a lofty, impersonal, nonjudgemental perspective from which to regard humans, it does not encourage a
view of humans as noble beings fashioned in the image of God; or, indeed, of
fallen angels.
Its close links to evils such as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the
world arms trade, technologies for torture and oppression.
Its failure to solve such global problems as poverty, hunger, injustice, energy
shortages, environmental degradation, mental illness.
Its inability to predict natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
Its failure to foresee the ‘biteback’ effects of new technologies, e.g. DDT, new
rice varieties produced by the green revolution.
Its role as a frequent bearer of bad news, e.g. climate change, lifestyle risks.
The unwillingness of most scientists to work on problems that straddle
disciplinary boundaries, or on bringing disciplines together (consilience) or on
synthesising divergent knowledge bases.
The apparent inability of science to definitively ‘prove’ anything.
The failure of many scientists to live up to their image of being honest truthseekers. Perceptions of scientific corruption range from miscreants who fake data
to dissemblers who are employed to peddle misinformation and doubt and muddy
debate on, mainly, health and environment issues.
Failure to lift humanity’s capacity for understanding and managing complexity in
an increasingly complex world. Managing the planet seems to be getting harder,
not easier.
Science’s failure to save itself from becoming just another service industry in a
capitalist world
Its failure to dispel an image of science as an elite, hubristic and ultimately boring
Failure to ameliorate people’s feelings of inadequacy and resentment in face of
their ignorance of science.
The ecology and coevolution of ideas
The rise of scepticism (and relativism) and its impact on the credibility of the search for
evidence–based meaning and, earlier, on traditional beliefs is a telling example of the
way in which ideas (verbalised meanings) coevolve. But can we say anything more
general, anything more than has been said, about how the ideas comprising the global
stock of ideas-meanings have coevolved with each other? Or, how coevolution between
the material globalisation process and the global stock of non-material ideas-meanings
has taken place?
As a starting point, it helps to hypothesise that the globe’s ever-changing stock of ideasmeanings is a self-organising energy-processing system---a global meaning-system in
which each person is a separate node and energy source for transmitting (e.g. by voice,
letter), processing and storing ideas. Despite being distributed across the world, with
nodes wherever there are people, the global meaning-system can still be thought of as
(and not just metaphorically) a single open system in which small energy flows
associated with speaking, thinking and memorising are dissipated along with the larger
energy flows associated with using prosthetic communication technologies.
Nodes in the global meaning–system are connected by direct speech in the case of small
localised groups and by a variety of communications channels across longer distances.
Some channels, like semaphore, email and telephony, are two-way (transmit and receive)
and others, notably mass media, are one-way. In principle, ideas can flow, perhaps
circuitously, between any two people. In practice, flows and exchanges of ideas among
people who already have relationships and similar sets of ideas (eg within a cultural
group or pseudospecies such as a tribe a guild, a nation…) predominate over flows
between pseudospecies. Against that, flows of ideas tend to be greater between
pseudospecies that are in cooperative or competitive relationships, e.g. dialogue, trade.
Structually then, the global meaning-system is made up of many variously interconnected
local meaning-systems.
Transmitted ideas may or may not be processed or stored in the recipient’s memory.
Most transmissions within a pseudospecies are routine and habitual, serving to reproduce
(maintain) the day-to-day organisation of the group and its coherence, i.e. its coordination and capacity for cooperation. They help answer ‘what-to-do’ and ‘what’s
happening’ questions and, to the extent that they are acted upon (e.g. are commands),
small information flows can trigger much larger flows of motor energy. Indeed, an
organisation is a self-maintaining system in which the behaviour of each component
depends on the presence and behaviour of other system components, especially the
information they transmit. In a traditional society, the implementing of habits, rituals and
customs will routinely trigger the exchange of established ideas. It is language, the
verbal exchange of meanings, which creates that common world of ideas in which every
individual lives. And it is the expressing of one’s thoughts that makes one’s own
subjectivity accessible.249 As the saying goes, people must talk about themselves until
they know themselves.
But is the world of exchanging ideas a true ecosystem? The defining characteristic of any
ecosystem is that it can be described as a persisting web of interdependent populations,
all necessary (well, there are exceptions) for the survival of all. In biological ecosystems,
each population is made up of members of a species, sub-species or pseudospecies. In a
stable ecosystem, each individual reproduces itself before dying. Viewing meaningsystems as ecosystems, all nodes where a particular idea is understood constitute a
population. That is, there is one population per established idea.
What then is the process by which populations of ideas rise and fall? Come and go? Are
‘species’ of ideas interdependent in the same sense that the food web makes populations
interdependent in a biological ecosystem? That is the key question. A transmitted idea
does not directly provide sufficient energy to maintain the ideas in a recipient’s mind but,
provided it is not ignored, it triggers in-body flows of nervous energy which result in
ideas being stored or processed or transmitted.
If the global meaning-system is a true ecosystem, a transmitted idea, X, will result in
further transmissions which, immediately or eventually, and before the recipient dies or
forgets X, trigger another transmission of X. Each transmission of X has to eventually
produce one further timely transmission of X into a mind where it is understood---if the
population of X in the global meaning-system is to be maintained. If each transmission
of X produces, on average, less than one further successful transmission of X, the X idea
will eventually die out in the sense that it will no longer be widely understood. If each
transmission of X produces, on average, more than one subsequent transmission of X, the
number of nodes where that idea is understood will grow. A group’s shared ideas (e.g. its
values, ideology, archetypes, norms, even words) probably need to be circulated
periodically to reinforce and keep them from being displaced by new or recovered ideas
and falling into ‘memory holes.’ where they can no longer guide collective or individual
actions. Dictionaries illustrate the ecosystemic nature of meaning-systems. Think of
individual words as ideas. A dictionary defines words in terms of other words. A wordidea will go ‘extinct’ if the words used to define it go extinct, i.e. are no longer
understood. Words fall out of use when they are no longer task-relevant, e.g. the name of
a defunct technology. If a word becomes fashionable, e.g. the name of a blossoming
technology, then the words used to define it will become more widely understood.
New ideas, whether generated internally (see chapter???) or imported from others, are
first tested for emotional acceptability (e.g. compatibility with group ideology or values)
and then processed for information content, i.e.for their contribution to the individual’s
Berger and Luckmann p37
stock of potentially-useful meanings. Note that a new idea must come with sufficient
context (explanation, definition) if it is to be meaningful; and, like an antibody locking
onto a virus, there must be a ‘niche’ for it in the pre-existing meaning-system. For
example, you cannot add a word to your vocabulary if you do not understand the words
used to define it. Ideas judged acceptable and task-relevant are committed to memory.250
From there, they may be communicated, more or less accurately to others, depending on
how rewarding this is foreseen to be. If it is accepted that the essence of evolution in
open systems is ‘selective retention of variation,’ the incorporation of new ideas into a
meaning-system is an evolutionary rather than an ecological process.
There are various ways in which communicating a new idea might be rewarded, e.g. it
might create an emotional bond, it might engender gratitude, it might change another’s
behaviour, it might change your group’s meaning-system. The idea of memes is relevant
here. To use Daniel Dennett’s (1995: 344) phrase, memes are ‘distinct memorable ideas’
which, for whatever reason, spread easily from person to person in the community. They
can be as frivolous as a pop tune or as serious as a political ideology. Memetics is the
study of the diversification, compounding, replication and spread of memes through
society, conceived of as an evolutionary process analogous to Darwinian evolution, with
memes being the counterparts of genes. Proponents of memetics consider that, like
genes, memes are replicated with reasonable accuracy when transmitted from one person
to another. They further suggest that the self-organising processes of diffusion,
modification, complexification and accumulation of memes and the behaviours they
induce lie at the heart of changes in society, eg religious or patriotic fervour.251
This is a view which brings us to the edge of historical idealism, the notion that history is
propelled by ideas, ideals, values and norms that manage to achieve mass appeal and
reorganise the thinking of whole societies. It is to be contrasted with historical
materialism, the notion that it is systems of production or industrial-military might which
steer history.252 Max Weber can be said to have given an idealistic explanation of the
growth of capitalism by linking it to the emergence of a ‘Protestant ethic.’ And as JM
Keynes famously noted:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both
when they are right and when they are wrong, are more
powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is
ruled by little else.253
Sperber, D. & D. Wilson (1987). Précis of Relevance: Communication and Cognition.
Behavioral and Brain Science, 10, 697-754.
Polak 1973: 14
253 Reference??
Conversely, in earlier discussion, Fromm’s social character, the way in which people
think about their roles in society, was presented as being directly moulded by the
production-system and the demands it placed on workers.
As usual in debates about causation there is a middle way. The middle way here is
coevolution: changes in social organisation create niches (e.g. uncertainties) in the
meaning-system, i.e. places where ideas that give meaning to those changes can form.
Equally, imagining changes in social organisation is a precursor to making those
imagined changes real. The history of slavery and its abolition is a good example. Each
step towards abolition produced ideas for taking a further step.254 Stepwise developments
in material technologies provide other neat examples.
The history of ideas
According to Peter Watson, the idea that ideas have histories is comparatively recent,
perhaps as recent as Francis Bacon in the late 16th century.255 Studies in the history of
ideas have tended to focus on developments in the foundation domains of philosophy,
science, social organisation and religion and this book too has something of the same
foci. Here, our aim is to identify and give examples of several different ways in which
ideas, as well as evolving within such domains, have coevolved with ideas from other
The most prominent of these processes, seen particularly clearly in struggles between
scientific and religious ideas, and between political ideologies, is competition---the battle
for minds---between incompatible belief systems. Each side not only searches
purposively for the ideas that will make its view of reality more plausible but actively
struggles to destroy the credibility of the other side’s ideas, e.g. belief versus disbelief in
the supernatural. Adversaries in such debates are commonly self-interested to the point
where they are willing to resort to lies, disinformation, emotional appeals and other antirational technologies to persuade.
Debates within philosophy and science do not touch whole communities as political and
religious debates do. In science, competition between incoming and outgoing paradigms,
to use Kuhn’s term,256 is robust but, largely, remains principled. One reason for this is
that many scientific hypotheses can and will be tested empirically. Another reason is that
scientists do not so much believe their hypotheses as presume that they will be corrected
and improved over time.
A second way in which ideas coevolve is through analogical and metaphorical thinking.
That is, ideas which have been accepted as reliably describing aspects of what happens or
what exists in one domain are imaginatively used to describe aspects of what exists or
Reference ??AN whitehead Adventures with ideas
Watson, P, 2005, Ideas: a history from fire to Freud,Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
256 Kuhn
what is happening in a second domain. The coevolution of consilient ideas in physics,
socio-economics and biological evolution provides a good example. 257 Economics began
as an adjunct to the natural sciences. It emerged through the efforts of Hobbes, the
physiocrats and Adam Smith to extend the concepts and methods of 17th century naturephilosophy into understanding people and society. That is, it was a development of
scientific materialism.258 Subsequently, 19th century physics imported several important
ideas from the social sciences, including system-equilibrium ideas (from economics) and,
in thermodynamics, the idea of the statistical distribution (itself a spinoff from 18th
century probability theory).259 Economics later re-imported these ideas after they had
been further developed by mathematical physicists. Darwin, as is well known, drew on
Malthus’ Essay on Population for the idea of natural selection.260 Subsequently, a variety
of attempts to understand social evolution have turned (back) to biological metaphors,
e.g. the idea of society as a developing and differentiating ‘super-organism’; the ‘survival
of the fittest’ ideology of social Darwinism; the emergence of evolutionary economics as
a discipline etc..261
Perhaps the most important factor favouring the coevolution of ideas located in different
domains of a culture is that because all new ideas have to be compatible with that culture,
in harmony with it, if they are to survive; they will necessarily be in harmony with each
other. That is, all have to conform, more-or-less, to the one cultural straight-jacket. The
constraints which impose in-common limits on all of a culture’s shared ideas include:
Values (those abstract qualities of an idea which trigger positive emotions)
Emotional taboos (ideas which trigger negative emotions stand to be rejected)
Cognitive structures (how ideas are grouped)
Cognitive technologies (‘rules’ for thinking)
Syntactic-semantic structure of the language (ways in which things can be said)
Acceptance of root metaphors underlying world views of the era (e.g. ‘the market’ in the
post-modern era)
257 Consilience, in the sense being used here, is the idea that generalisations invented to
account for one set of phenomena often account for others as well. See William Whewell The
Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 1840.
258 From Arran Gare
259 Ball, P 2004 Critical Mass: How one thing leads to another Heinemann London pp83-87
260 Malthus
261 Nelson and Winter Evolutionary Economics
When a culture’s ‘idea-space’ is firmly constrained, niches in different domains can be
connected by small (imaginative) leaps across domain boundaries; and thus are more
likely to become connected.
Is the global meaning-system sufficiently adaptive?
We humans have achieved an understanding of ourselves and our world which, in many
respects, is orders of magnitude greater than that of, say, classical Greece. And, in many
respects that understanding (perception of meaning) continues to increase at
unprecedented rates. The best single indicator here is the number of words available for
verbalising meanings. For example, English, the richest of the world’s 2700 or so
languages, has grown from about 50 000 words in Old English to about a million words
today, if half a million or so uncatalogued scientific and technical words are included.262
The world’s largest library, the Library of Congress, contains over 18 million books. If
all texts in this library were digitised, their totality would comprise 20 terabytes of data (a
terabyte equals a thousand times the content of the Encyclopaedia Britannica).263 By
2001, the Internet archive already had 100 terabytes of online data! Yet, it was only as
recently as the 18th century that Denis Diderot edited a seventeen-volume encyclopedia
that aspired to be ‘a compendium of all valuable knowledge.’264
Other rough indicators of growth in humanity’s total understanding suggest themselves:
the sheer number of people in the world, each with a different meaning-system; the range
of overlapping pseudospecies, each with a shared suite of ideas; the number and reach of
mass media outlets; and the voluminous technological expertise that keeps the world’s
societies functioning from day to day.
Notwithstanding, even as new ideas have been boosting the global stock of meanings
through the Common Era, extant ideas have been disappearing. Many, probably most,
ideas are short-lived because they are tools for understanding or responding to fastchanging local situations, e.g. weather conditions, group dynamics. As immediate
conditions recede into the past, so do the ideas that are modelling those conditions (at
least till such conditions re-occur, as they tend to do in traditional societies).
But, given that our interest here is macro-historical, what of bigger questions, questions
of ‘what to do’ and ‘what’s happening’ on the scales of continents and generations?
Regional-scale overshoots have been common in Holocene history and now we appear to
have a global-scale Overshoot crisis with the potential to affect every human, now and for
generations into the future. Is the global meaning-system co-evolving with the
globalisation process in ways which might allow humanity to pass through a bottleneck
Robert McCrum, William Cran, & Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York:
Penguin, 1992: 1; Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 10. Grolier, 1999.
263 (accessed July 28 2008)
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionanaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers pars une
société de gens de letters; (accessed July 28 2008)
without too much disorder and personal trauma? Are we learning fast enough? It is
concerning that humans have rarely been able to respond to looming threats of overshoot
in time to save the resource base.
There is a conventional understanding of what is happening here. It takes the form of a
world view which, while recognising the emergence of environmental constraints,
believes market forces will evoke restructuring and technological change at a rate
sufficient to forestall environmental and social problems and resource shortages. This
economistic paradigm is widely-accepted because it has worked in the sense of having
delivered ongoing consumption increases for many; warnings of bottlenecks lack
credibility because they have been ignored in the past without disastrous consequences
following. And influential interest groups argue for continuing the current marketdependent strategy.
Still, whether it turns out to be a misunderstanding or not, the very acknowledgement of a
global-scale Overshoot crisis is an important achievement for the global meaning-system.
It evidences the fact that humans are increasingly able to think about, not just humanscale processes, but micro and global-millennial processes. But how well? How deep an
understanding of causal processes behind global Overshoot can we hope for? Is the
global meaning-system delivering a sufficient understanding of conditions necessary for
ongoing survival of global society? Is that system sufficiently developed to see how
understanding can be translated into practice? Such questions are prompted by the casual
perception that the world’s problems seem to be not only increasing but getting harder to
Several reasons for gloom
In the beginning was deception….First Adam, ashamed of
his own act, tries to deceive God: he hides with Eve amongst
the trees of the Garden of Eden. Discovered, however, he
admits before God the betrayal of the promise not to touch
the forbidden fruit. What Adam then tries is to escape the
blame by accusing Eve of having seductively offered him it.
Eve, in her turn, responds to the divine questioning by
pointing the accusing finger at the serpent: it had deceived
her and persuaded her to try the fruit. But what did the
serpent say? It told Eve that the threat by God was a
deception---they would not die when they ate the fruit, but
their eyes would be opened and they would become like God
in the ability to discern good and evil.
Eduardo Giannetti (1997) p.21
Global Overshoot is a big complex problem caused, in large part, by energy-intensive
globalisation. It is presenting itself in the form of multiple, pervasive, linked challenges
associated with, inter alia, population growth, species extinction, climate change and oil
depletion. Because it is a qualitatively different problem from anything that has gone
before, we might ask if there are reasons why the global meaning-system might,
intrinsically or extrinsically, be incapable of providing sufficient understanding to allow
the ‘human collective’ to make rational choices about how to respond to global
The first of these reasons is complexity itself. It is always difficult to predict the
behaviour of open complex systems, characterised as they are by lagged feedbacks,
negative and positive. For example, a post-war baby boom can lead to high
unemployment 20 years later; the time taken for the oceans’ expansion to come to
equilibrium with a given level of greenhouse warming is several centuries. Prediction
becomes even harder when the system in question is changing (rapidly) in terms of its
material and energy inputs. Given the complexity of global society, and our ignorance of
many of its linkages (what affects what), we can safely say that the global meaningsystem will not be able to produce a quantitatively accurate model of the globalised
world. When a system is largely unpredictable because it cannot be modelled, the
consequences of attempting to ‘correct’ its behaviour will also be unpredictable over
anything but short periods into the future. Even if some legitimate decision-making agent
called the human collective (e.g. a world parliament) were to attempt to make rational
decisions comparing the consequences of comprehensive alternative responses to global
Overshoot, it could not be done. Furthermore, as well as embodying a prediction
problem, the global meaning-system yields no plausible criteria for rating multi-faceted
consequences, adding apples and oranges if you like. Given then that a rational or
synoptic approach, to use Lindblom’s term,265 is out of reach, the default challenge to the
global meaning-system, one we will address presently, is to devise ‘second best’ methods
of conceptualising the global Overshoot problem and how it should be addressed.
But, even if there were progress on these intrinsic difficulties, there would remain
extrinsic reasons as to why the global meaning-system is as yet unable to create the
understanding required to address global Overshoot. If there is to be a coordinated,
comprehensive and effective response to the Overshoot crisis it will necessarily involve
the active and willing participation of a large majority of the world’s people (as Ashby’s
law of requisite variety266 tells us, a successful control system needs to be as diverse in its
possible settings as the system being controlled). However, global society has no
established institutions, no collective agent, for planning and coordinating global-scale
activities from the top down, e.g. identifying what each nation-state is to do.
More to the point, thinking ‘bottom up’ and idealistically, few individuals have an
unambiguously positive emotional response to the proposition that global Overshoot is a
major threat to human wellbeing and must be addressed vigorously. But, unless such an
attitude does spread, global society will not see a widespread shift towards ‘post-material’
265 Lindblom, CE The Intelligence of Democracy : Decision Making through Mutual
Adjustment Free Press, New York, 1965 Ch 9.
266 Ashby
values and behaviours, and no reshaping of the predominant social character towards one
where people want to do what they have to do to play their part in managing global
The first very obvious reason for this situation is that most people in the world, certainly
in the peripheral world, are either poor or desperately poor and concerned only with local
issues that affect their immediate survival. They probably will not have heard of the
Overshoot crisis or, if they have, they probably will not have the education to understand
what is after all a many-layered issue. And even if they do understand the issue and
think it important, they may be fatalistic, i.e. assume themselves to be helpless to do
There are similar good reasons why the idea of a global-overshoot project is not as yet
strongly supported by the people of the world’s core societies. In these rich societies the
individual is bombarded with ideas, some intended to inform, others to persuade or
deceive. In this cacophony, well-tagged ‘information overload,’ the idea that global
Overshoot may be a paramount problem has only just begun to spread as and is a long
way from becoming an ‘idea in good currency.’267 Even then, many people will not hear
because their minds have been closed by their religious or political beliefs.
Those who are consciously listening struggle to choose between competing arguments as
to why such a project should or should not be supported. They have learned that they live
in cultures where propaganda and deception are commonplace, a world where, more than
likely, advocates are not seeking to convert you to a truth as they see it, but to make you
behave in a way advantageous to them. What to do? What to believe? Researching the
overshoot issue for oneself may be an option for a few well-educated people with access
to today’s electronic information systems. But most have little choice other than to
accept the judgement of an authority figure they are prepared to trust or, failing that,
pluck a few snippets of ‘evidence’ from the arguments that they encounter (e.g. the Arctic
is melting) and jump intuitively to a conclusion.
Just to be clear here, the routine corruption of meaning by self-serving interests is a much
bigger and wider problem than any muddying of the overshoot issue. While deceit has
long been with us (Homer’s Odyssey is about little else), the resources, psychological
insights and communications channels available to contemporary deceivers and
persuaders raise, as a serious question, the possibility that we have savagely
compromised global society’s capacity to tackle its many challenges, just one of which is
the overshoot crisis. For example, being able to trust that, mostly, one is not being
deceived is fundamental to the functioning of a market economy, contracts
notwithstanding. Perhaps deceit has become the Achilles’ heel of language, the master
Self-deception may be as important as deception in thwarting rational debate about the
case for a global-overshoot project. As Giannetti demonstrates at length, humans are
marvellously adept at coming to honestly believe in propositions which, conveniently, are
compatible with their immediate self-interest.268 For well-off people in the industrialised
world, any comprehensive response to the global Overshoot crisis is likely to demand the
self-discipline of foregoing short-term gain in return for long-term gains to, primarily,
others. How sensible then it is to be sceptical of a ‘bad news’ scenario of a world in deep
trouble! How easy to see that one’s own responses must wait on the responses of others!
So, putting together the technical difficulties of devising a rational response to the global
Overshoot crisis and the psycho-social barriers to widespread participation in any such
response, it will be a bloody miracle if humanity squeezes through its coming bottleneck
without massive wounds.
Continuities and discontinuities
Two more-or-less unbroken continuities, namely the trend towards globalisation and the
ongoing accumulation of cultural capital, have been suggested as interdependent
processes which together offer an initial understanding (What’s happening?) of the
evolution of the human ecosystem over the Common Era. Slotting into these ‘umbrella’
trends are other long-term homeorhetic trends which, at any time, both reflect what has
gone before and strongly shape what can/does happen subsequently. These include
growth in:
Usable energy captured by humans
Number of human beings alive
Number and size of cities and, more generally, of collectives
Stocks of available technologies---social. material, communicative and cognitive
Stocks of physical infrastructure
Trade and communication between geographic regions
Natural, social and human scientific knowledge
Each of the score of momentous discontinuities selected as punctuation points, as turning
points, for this chapter’s story of humanity’s journey through the Common Era appears to
have triggered extensive reorganisation, but without dislocating the Era’s underlying
continuities. Declines in such measures in one part of the world have been soon
recovered elsewhere. The various highlighted shifts in such things as territorial
boundaries, population patterns, trade relations, technologies, mental models and climate
have not deflected a broader pattern of growth and increasing connectivity in global
society. In the language of dissipative systems the global system has not (yet) been
pushed, by an ever-increasing throughput of energy, past its resilience threshold, past its
homeostatic limits, into a new and unpredictable behaviour regime.
The same ‘dynamic stability,’ meaning the global system’s capacity to hold to an
extended (2000-plus years) trajectory, does not hold for individual regional-scale subsystems within the globalising system, particularly those regions where history’s
‘momentous discontinuities’ were born and from whence they spread. In these subsystems, being small relative to the global system, an initial discontinuous shift
(bifurcation) in the flow-paths, flow-rates of energy, materials or ideas commonly proved
to be sufficient to trigger a major reorganisation in the region’s activities, institutions,
production system etc.. From a human point of view, such reorganisation might be
catastrophic or rewarding. Thereafter, depending on the particular changes occurring in
the ‘seed’ region, ‘knock-on’ or ‘domino’ effects (these are thermodynamically open
systems) spread to adjacent or otherwise connected (e.g. via trade routes) regions. Some
such transfer-effects soon peter out while others travel across the world. Think of the
Plague, triggering a wave of drastic social reorganisation as it spread across Eurasia; or
the industrial revolution wherein a discontinuous shift in manufacturing and energyextracting technologies in Britain was imitated around the world and, in time, boosted the
contribution of trade to most of the world’s economies, and hence to the global system;
global-scale continuities arise through the alignment of similar regional-scale effects.
Homeostatic limits and self-reorganisation
More generally, regional societies are always evolving, singly and together, sometimes
abruptly and discontinuously as in these examples and sometimes in ways better
described as smoothly and continuously. Every society is faced with the challenge of
persisting in an environment where access to stocks and flows of energy, materials, ideas
is always changing because of the activities of neighbours, trading partners, enemies,
Nature etc.. And, within certain limits, societies do adapt to such changes and persist.
But, if the absolute change or rate of change in a society’s inputs, whether up (positive
stress) or down (negative stress), exceeds some threshold level, the society will collapse,
i.e. lose nearly all structure. For example, regions experiencing sharply reduced
throughputs cannot continue to service their prior degree of organisational complexity
and have to reorganise to something simpler. Thus, in a country destructured by war---a
high-energy disturbance---people flee or return to low-energy village life
Regions which are subjected to moderate changes in their input regime initially absorb
such changes smoothly and homeostatically, i.e. without changing their structure, simply
altering flow rates along existing links or adding/subtracting from their existing stores of
materials and energy. However, there are always limits to how much change can be
absorbed in this continuous way. When those limits are reached, the region either
collapses from overload (or underload) or it reorganises towards something more (less)
complex, e.g. more links, more structures, more reserves, more layers of organisation,
different technologies. The ways in which regions respond to changing terms of trade
provide everyday examples: When prices for their products fall, exporting regions
economise and struggle to carry on. But, if prices stay low, the export industry, and then
the regional economy collapse. If export prices rise, exports rise only slowly until a
reorganised production system allows a discontinuous jump in production.
When a region has responded homeostatically to an ongoing environmental overload
without collapsing or reorganising, it will normally continue to survive as long as there
are no further increases in input flows from the environment. It will tend to settle down
in a steady state with input and output flows in balance. Nevertheless, any region being
pushed towards its homeostatic limits has inescapably lost resilience, this being its
capacity for absorbing further change without being triggered to de- or re-structure. This
loss of buffering capacity, this vulnerability to any further change in a system which is
close to its homeostatic limits, can alternatively be thought of as homeostatic weakening.
On the other hand, when a regional society responds to an ongoing environmental
overload (e.g. a rise in energy throughput) by reorganising into a more complex structure,
it re-acquires a capacity for absorbing a further similar change. This is because the
homeostatic limit on further throughput gets shifted outwards in accordance with the
system’s new structure. Unfortunately, the society’s homeostatic limit on input reduction
also rises. This means that if energy supplies (say) now decline ‘permanently’ the system
will be more prone to collapse or simplification into minimally-connected ‘bits’ than if it
had not reorganised. In short, a system which responds structurally to what is only a
temporary change in input flows will become less resilient as flows revert to ‘normal.’
This is the Overshoot challenge identified previously as facing the global system as a
whole and now being identified as a potential threat to the continuity of individual
regional societies as well. While the time scales on which global and regional systems
reach overshoot are very different, the processes operating are analogous.
History records that, at most times, some regional societies will be complexifying and
moving towards overshoot while others will be simplifying or collapsing. For example,
some regional populations will be growing through in-migration and natural increase
while others will be declining through out-migration; some regions will be accumulating
wealth and capital while others are losing it. The continuities exhibited by the global
system are the resultant of the various regional changes. [[Heraclitus, who is remembered
for his maxims "there is nothing permanent except change" and "you can never step into the
same river twice," compared the world order to an ever- living fire, "kindling in measures and
going out in measures."]]] [[The world always unravels as it is built anew]]]
Global and regional life cycles
Whether global or regional, systems which keep increasing in complexity can be thought
of as passing through the growth stage of a life cycle which, in time, will become a
senescence stage and, ultimately, end in collapse or significant simplification.269 Given
enough time, all open dissipative systems simplify-collapse, basically because the larger
slower dissipative systems in which they are embedded and on which they rely for input
flows eventually reorganise or even collapse. For example, the warm conditions of the
current inter-glacial period will come to an end and energy flows into the human
ecosystem will probably plummet.
But even without massive change in the ecosphere which feeds and protects the human
ecosystem, complexifying systems become increasingly vulnerable to relatively small
fluctuations in the surrounding environment’s mass-energy flows. The process which
more-or-less guarantees this is as follows: Each successive reorganisation confers lessand-less resilience on the system as it approaches senescence, ie the system’s homeostatic
limits keep retreating. This means that ever-smaller fluctuations in the environment are
sufficient to precipitate a further reorganisation or, if a suitable reorganisation, one
matched to the changed flows, is not available, the system will simplify or collapse.
Why does a regional system lose resilience as it complexifies? There are various reasons.
One is that as a system complexifies its resources get increasingly ‘locked up’ in
processes and structures which require a large pulse of ‘activation energy’ to divert them
into novel processes which are more energy-intensive (dissipate more energy). Inertia in
regional land use patterns is a common example: land accumulates in the hands of
conservative owners who see no benefit to themselves from changing their established
land uses. Putting this another way, an unresponsive system is probably not generating
enough options, enough variety from which to select new behaviours.
Another way in which a complexifying system loses resilience is that adding extra links,
nodes and flow paths to an open system reduces the average intensity of energy flows
through the system’s network of paths. The significance of this is that reducing average
flows through a system’s paths makes that system more vulnerable to disruption from
typical environmental fluctuations. It might be also noted that it becomes increasingly
difficult to find niches in a complexifying system such that the benefits of an additional
flow path are not outweighed by an associated loss of function in existing paths---the
phenomenon known to economists as diminishing marginal returns.
The deep processes of eco-cultural history
In the broad sense in which the word is being used in this book, history-writing is a
technology, a recipe with a purpose. More than one recipe of course; historians use a
variety of approaches to the interpretation and organisation of historical material for
Reference to Holling here ? or not?
creating coherent stories about the experiences and accomplishments of peoples over
time. The present chapter is an exercise in ‘big’ history---the story of humankind over
the last several thousand years. It is not and cannot be comprehensive.
Historiographically, its starting point is the recognition that all histories, human or nonhuman, are histories of open dissipative systems. These are chunks of space-time which
can always be described in terms of flows of energy and materials entering, leaving and
circulating within them. Dissipative systems behave in characteristic ways. They are
always changing, sometimes extremely slowly and sometimes rapidly, sometimes
smoothly and continuously and reversibly (homeostatic change), sometimes convulsively
and discontinuously (self-reorganisation). When dissipative systems are interconnected,
meaning that energy and materials flow between them, they co-evolve, i.e. change in one
system leads to change in others, outputs from one system become inputs for another.
While there is no ‘correct’ way of disaggregating a dissipative system into a population
of sub-systems in order to follow its inner history, it is usually more illuminating and
tidier to look for its ‘natural’ sub-systems---those parts which are more densely connected
within themselves than they are to the outside world. In the case of the human
ecosystem, that means the bio-physical environment plus a population of social groupings
which, depending on what is being investigated, might be pseudospecies, classes,
societies, nation states, empires…
Philosophically speaking, the idea that all histories are histories of dissipative systems is
a metaphysic, meaning a general theory of reality at the broadest, most synoptic level. It
is a metaphysic in the spirit of process philosophy which has the guiding idea that natural
existence consists in and is best understood in terms of processes rather than things---of
modes of change rather than fixed stable entities. For process philosophers, from
Heraclitus (Nothing is at rest!) to Whitehead, change of every sort---physical, organic,
psychological---is the pervasive and predominant feature of the real.270
While all dissipative systems have similar general characteristics, each recognisably
separate type of dissipative system is normally analysed using its own experientiallybased frame of reference. For example, different vocabularies have been developed to
describe historical changes in physical, biological and social systems even though
homeostasis, self-organisation etc. might be common to all. The point being made is that
while dissipative processes are all-pervasive, they present themselves differently in
different types of systems. Humans have learned to think about different types of
systems without necessarily recognising their same deep structure. It was not until the
20th century that the widespread applicability of, first, systems thinking and then
complex-systems thinking began to be recognised.
In this spirit, the present chapter idealises the Common-Era history of the human
ecosystem as an articulated story of evolutionary and ecological changes in and around an
evolving population of human social groupings. The convenient simplifying assumption
Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy Heraclitus? Whitehead?
which allows the story to keep moving forward is that each social grouping
(pseudospecies) acts as a single-minded collective agent. In the present context, an agent
is a goal–seeking entity which is constrained to keep making rational choices; that is, an
agent, before acting, compares alternative possible behaviours in terms of their
consequences for goal-achievement. An agent’s mental model of the world, the basis for
its rational behaviour, is founded on its beliefs and preferences as well as causal
understanding of what is happening in its environment. Rational decision-making is
always bounded (limited in what it can take into account), but note also that being
rational does not preclude behaviour which is, to most, short-sighted, ignorant,
prejudiced, superstitious etc.. Notwithstanding, agency is the motor of history!
Obviously there are many reasons why it will always be difficult for the historian to
model the rationality behind an historical agent’s actual decisions and behaviours. Why
did Germany attack Russia in 1941? What a complex question. Commonly, one can do
little more than interpret agent behaviour in terms of a few conventionally-recognised
goal-seeking/ problem-solving strategies such as trade, conquest, new technology and
growth; and perhaps get some sense of past values. This may or may not be enough to
convey understanding. Nor is it particularly helpful to know that, in principle, an agent’s
decision-making processes are a dissipative system like any other.271
The historical discontinuities identified in this chapter were periods of rapid cultural
evolution, times at which particular pseudospecies started to behave in markedly different
ways---ways which soon triggered large behaviour shifts in other pseudospecies. Some
such shifts were reactive responses to changes in the bio-physical environment (e.g.
warming or cooling of the climate, disease outbreaks) or in the social environment, e.g.
trade options, invasion, the spread of ideas including religions and technologies. Other
more proactive shifts were triggered internally, e.g. after the invention of new social
material etc technologies; after resource depletion; applying existing technologies
opportunistically. As noted earlier, the reason for tagging humanity’s Common Era
history as eco-cultural is to emphasise that changes in the natural world are as important
for understanding what has happened as changes in behaviour within and amongst social
groups. The term eco-cultural also reminds us that evolutionary change in recent
millennia and longer has been cultural and behavioural rather than genetic.
Evolutionary ecology
What are the respective contributions of evolutionary and ecological processes to a
macro-history of the Common Era, written as it is here around momentous discontinuities
separated by slow-changing ongoing reorganisation---periods of relative stability.
Broadly speaking, evolutionary change in a pseudospecies’ behaviour or in relations
between multiple pseudospecies involves more-or-less irreversible structural change such
as the introduction of new structures or the reorganisation of existing structures. In
Heinz Pagels, The Dreams of Reason (Simon & Schuster 1988) Sperber and Deirdre
Wilson Relevance.
biology one thinks of a genetic change in a species and in human societies one thinks first
of a new or newly-introduced technology (material, social etc). Conversely, ecological
change, within one or between several pseudospecies, is more reversible, involving
fluctuations in flows along pre-existing links and in stock levels in pre-existing storage
nodes, e.g. working longer hours to meet a surge in export demand, reducing stockpiles,
population growth.
[[[CONSTRUCTIVISM??]]]]]]]]] margalef? Succession here?
The inference here is that history’s periods of major discontinuous change are more
evolutionary and its periods of continuous change are more characterised by ecological
processes. That is to say, after a burst of rapid evolutionary reorganisation involving
multiple pseudospecies the rate of reorganisation slows and, in the subsequent period of
relative stability, each surviving pseudospecies will be learning to reliably reproduce
itself in what amounts to a ‘new’ niche. Survival and, to use Holling’s term,272 renewal is
likely to rely heavily on the pseudospecies’ homeostatic or ecological adjustment
capacity. Survival means that, staying within their respective homeostatic limits, all
interconnected pseudospecies will have found mutually compatible ways of exchanging
materials, energy and information amongst themselves.
Notwithstanding, every pseudospecies’ adaptive responses during historically quiet
periods are likely to also include ongoing incremental reorganisations as the group trials
novel behaviours which promise to improve goal achievement. Self-reorganisation does
not have to be transformative; in fact, it will most commonly involve the adjustment of a
few links and nodes at a time. And, because this is happening to all the interacting
pseudospecies simultaneously, each pseudospecies can be thought of as coevolving with
its niche where its niche is, to a large extent, defined in terms of those behaviours in other
pseudospecies which, for survival’s sake, need to be recognised.273
So, while cultural evolution never stops, it might be expected to proceed relatively
quickly during discontinuities and relatively slowly in between. More concretely, periods
of rapid change disrupt the existing organisation of societies while longer in-between
periods of gradual change are likely to produce developmental changes such as
population buildup, capital accumulation and stable relationships with neighbours. A
clearcut recent example is provided by the demise and tumultuous aftermath of the Soviet
Union. Twenty years later, its former satellites have become ‘new’ pseudospecies and
are groping their way towards political stability and economic development.
All this raises the question of ‘speciation’ amongst pseudospecies, these being social
groupings of individuals with shared interests, commonly having their members breeding
and working together. Pseudospecies in the human ecosystem function like plant and
Holling renewal
The rich idea that the niche and the organism co-evolve is explored under the rubric of
constructivism in the literature (Odling-Smee et al 2003 on niche theory )
animal species in ‘ordinary’ ecosystems, and that includes speciating, the formation of
new species from existing species.
While cataloguing pseudospecies is a subjective and context-dependent matter, the list
has clearly changed dramatically over the Common Era. Empires, nation-states,
religious, economic and political groupings, alliances, classes etc. have come and gone in
what is probably history’s best recognised processional. New pseudospecies come into
recognisable existence, and vice versa, in a variety of ways. Sometimes an existing
society transforms itself from within by adopting radical technologies, e.g. Turkey before
and after Kemal Ataturk. Conversely, societies can be destroyed by natural disasters or
self-destruct as a result of holding grossly maladaptive beliefs.
At the global scale, new social forms most commonly emerge as a result of
competition/cooperation between existing societies. War and conquest can see a
pseudospecies destroyed and its remnants assimilated into an updated version of the
conquering pseudospecies. Conversely, any cooperative alliance (trade, military,
economic etc.) between pseudospecies creates a new pseudospecies which has a degree of
control over the pre-existing component pseudospecies. Relationships in which some
pseudospecies have a degree of power to control, constrain or coordinate the behaviour of
others are hierarchical, a type of arrangement that characteristically appears in
dissipative systems as they become more energetic and more complex, e.g. supranational
organisations in a globalising world.
At the scale of the nation-state, Common Era populations have usually been organised
hierarchically around two umbrella pseudospecies, jointly playing out an ongoing
struggle between authority and freedom---a powerful ruling minority and a ruled
majority. In relations with the outside world, the ruling elite is the agent which makes
decisions on behalf of the whole population. Against the persistent backdrop of this
broad structure, the elite and the subordinate pseudospecies have continued to evolve and
coevolve. Both are hierarchical and it is amongst the populations of lower-level
pseudospecies (a) within the elite and (b) within the subordinate pseudospecies that
speciation takes place. Pseudospecies within elites, call them factions, have been
notorious throughout history for engaging in their own power struggles as energetically
as they have sought to exploit the subordinated majority. New factions equate to new
pseudospecies. Subordinate pseudospecies too have comprised an ever-changing suite of
interest groups based on, for example, political affiliation or changing economic roles.
Cultural speciation, as presented here, is a much sloppier process than biological
speciation which can always be modeled in terms of changing gene frequencies in a
population. Changes in any number of a group’s characteristics, including such things as
demographics, technologies, home territory, external links and beliefs, might be
sufficient, depending on the context, to trigger a judgement that a pseudospecies has
emerged or disappeared. Pseudospecies exist in the eye of the beholder and the beholder
is not in a position to model their formation; only to recognise some of the classes of
pseudospecies that do regularly emerge and some of the situations conducive to
emergence and disappearance of pseudospecies (particularly, but not exclusively, rapid
change of one sort or another).
The uses of history
Historiography is, before all else, a technology for imposing greater meaning on one or
another aspect of the past and near-past. It does this by identifying historical ‘facts’ and
clarifying or finding relationships between those facts; or between those facts and things
more contemporary, or of particular interest to the historian. The relationships which
confer meaning might be purely chronological, a mere ordering of historical facts in time.
Or they might be inductive generalisations about co-occurrences between types of facts,
e.g. identifying causal relations of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc‘ form, or searching for
the ‘laws of history.’ An excellent example of what is possible (see earlier), is Jared
Diamond’s realisation of the importance of certain initial conditions, most notably the
possibilities for domesticating local plants and animals, in shaping the very different
courses of history on different continents.274 What the historian finds depends not only
on what evidence is available but on the conceptual framework and world view he or she
brings to the task; and the available evidence will in turn depend on the historian’s
conceptions and pre-conceptions.
Implicitly or explicitly, all histories have a higher purpose. Thus, like this book, much
history is exploratory---e.g. testing to see if the facts are compatible with a received
higher idea (‘progress’ for example). In the present case, the facts do seem to be
compatible with the hypothesis that history can be interpreted as a hierarchy of
evolutionary and ecological processes in dynamic open systems. Such a conclusion is in
no way unique. In their own ways, various macrohistorians, including David Christian
and William McNeill, [[Wallerstein??]] have accepted this perspective.275
The present exercise, again like others, also has a normative intention. Can we, despite
Hegel’s firm No, learn from history? Is it true that those who do not understand the past
cannot understand the present or think productively about humanity’s long-term future?
Or, more specifically, does a long-term history of humanity from an evolutionaryecological perspective give any insight into what we might want to learn from history and
what might be possible within that constraint? Does the present history, or indeed history
in general, clarify the limits of agency and how an individual or collective agent might
better approach the quality survival task? These are questions to be addressed in the next
McNeill Christian
The unbroken history of the human lineage can be traced
back to the origins of the universe but more recently,
meaning the last few million years, we have become, and
remained, animals called mammals, then primates, and then a
branch of the great ape family. Primates evolved to live in
groups in territories from which they attempted to exclude
trespassers, a behavioural tendency which persisted as the
first humans evolved into modern humans and spread across
much of the planet. During the last Ice Age, as Homo
sapiens’ rate of biological evolution (e.g. increasing brain
size) slowed down, its rate of cultural evolution (e.g. toolmaking skills) speeded up. That is, humans began to create
and use an expanding and selectively changing range of
behavioural ‘recipes’ (what I have adventurously called
technologies) which through learning and imitation within
and between groups, could remain available from generation
to generation. By making the further assumption that groups
and individuals are purposive agents (i.e. constrained to
behave in an emotionally acceptable and rational way) when
choosing between technologies, one can, in hindsight and in
principle, construct a plausible story (a scenario) of how the
species has survived, multiplied and thrived (or not) since,
say, cultural ‘liftoff.’ The fact that technologies have become
more elaborate and collectively more energy-intensive over
time does not change the basic process; nor does the fact that
the rate of cultural change has varied over time.
Before contemplating the future and its difficulties let us bask a moment in the warm
glow of understanding that a knowledge of history’s interweavings confers. The cameo
paragraph above is a confident assertion that, subject to accepting several methodological
premises (groups as purposive agents, the species’ capacity for technological innovation),
and assuming a sufficiency of raw historical facts,276 an abductively plausible world
‘By facts we usually just mean “data, “ that is, everything we count as not part of the
particular problem before us, but as what is safe enough to be taken for granted in solving
it, and needed to do so. But facts are never confined to the raw data of sense, and seldom
to “physical facts” (the kind that can be stated in terms of physics ). It is a fact that this is
history should be possible, i.e. a history which is consistent with the facts. To make this
happen, one has to not only assume that individuals are rational, albeit subject to
emotional taboos, but that they have a fairly standard mix of motivations;277 for material
gain, access to women,278 power, acceptance, self-preservation... Pseudospecies too have
to be understood by assuming them to be selecting behaviours (what Snooks calls
dynamic strategies279) which are variants on a few generic social technologies such as
trade, conquest, colonisation…
In the event, every history, from world to local, is limited by factual gaps and a
necessarily imperfect understanding of protagonists’ mental models. There is also the
inescapable limitation that the historian has to find a way of simplifying the warp and
weft of the historical tapestry, its many parallel and cross threads, so that it can be
presented as a linear narrative of a size that can be absorbed. Thus, the perspective of the
present exercise is that history can be viewed as a succession of fundamentally important
turning points or discontinuities. These are clusters of events which start wherever and
which trigger (cause) extended chains of events, of ongoing and spreading adjustments,
many of which will themselves be ‘minor’ discontinuities.280 The challenge in applying
this approach is to identify a manageable number of major discontinuities such that one
can yet say something of where each came from and where it led. The complexity of
history comes with the interweaving of multiple cascades of adjustments to multiple
diachronic discontinuities.281
The present exercise centres on a macrohistory which culminates in the beginnings of a
major discontinuity. It purports to explain how the human lineage went from being a
small population of well-adapted tree-dwellers in Africa to being an erupting worldwide
population relying on fossil-fuels and an ever-elaborating suite of material, social,
communicative and cognitive technologies for meeting people’s material etc. needs,
albeit with starkly varying degrees of success. Whatever that success, it is hard not to
feel a sense of wonder (fancy that!) at how these ‘hairless apes’ have created, survived,
exploited, absorbed, magnified and built on history’s environmental, biological and
cultural discontinuities. Think of ice ages, the Toba eruption, language, cultural liftoff,
food or poison, that it is dangerous, dirty, unique, or legal, that it is an ancient totem pole
or the flag of my country. Yet standards quite alien to physics must be grasped before we
can “see” these facts. They are thus never logically isolated from some kind of
“evaluating.” Midgley M Beast and Man 1978Cornell p178
Mary Midgley (1978 p 14) suggests that “we badly need new and more suitable concept for
describing motivation.”
278 Jonathan Gottschall "The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer
279 Snooks paper e-library
280 Minor discontinuities in macrohistory become the major discontinuities of microhistories
281 Natphil paper by Salthe in e-library
the Holocene climate-shift, agriculture, cities, writing, consciousness, sail, plague,
printing, industrialisation… The list goes on.
Wonder is not admiration
Having said that, wonder is not necessarily admiration. People tend to admire (approve
of) contemporaries with talents and character traits they would like for themselves, talents
and traits which are believed to enhance quality-survival prospects in today’s world. By
imitating parental behaviour, children learn what to admire and what to disapprove of.
Furthermore, discretionary behaviours which are consistently admired (or denigrated)
acquire a moral character which goes beyond approval-disapproval, i.e. non-conformity
incurs physical or psychological (e.g. shame) punishment.
To the extent that people admire-denigrate other life forms, and that includes their own
ancestors, it comes from projecting contemporary human qualities onto such, e.g. the tree
that, metaphorically, ‘strives’ to reach the sky, the ‘faithful’ dog. Similarly we are
tempted to admire and denigrate, and to pass moral judgements on what appear to be
contemporary traits in our ancestors. But ancestral behaviours which we judge to be
cruel, honest, honourable, cooperative, combative, exploitative and so on, may not have
existed in the sense that, at that time, the concepts of cruel, honest etc. may have not yet
emerged. After all, cruelty (say) is an idea which had to be invented and given a name.
Or, they may have existed but not had any moral character.
So, we can say that the cruel conduct of, say, the Bronze-Age Assyrians was immoral by
contemporary standards, but does anything useful follow from that observation? It is,
potentially, more useful to ask if the Assyrians made an adaptive mistake by choosing to
be cruel. Did they even perceive that they had a choice, consciously or unconsciously?
Would they have achieved more of what they valued if they had chosen not to use the
social technology of cruelty to produce conforming behaviour? Certainly their victims
would have been better off. But, would the quality of life and survival prospects of
today’s humans be better if the Assyrians had foregone cruelty? These are unanswerable
questions. If we are to reserve admiration for discretionary behaviours we judge to have
improved the achievement of, and prospects for, quality survival, then much of history
will be beyond that judgement.
In the event, scholars have found it more productive to study the history of values, i.e.
how people in the past have thought about values. What did historical peoples value in
terms of ends and means, of behavioural standards? Answers here have contributed, first,
to understanding how it really was to live in, say, times of global transformation and,
second, to understanding the diversity of people’s values, not only in the past but, by
extension, in the present, e.g. today’s fundamentalist Christians appear to exhibit a
religiosity comparable to much of medieval Europe.282
Muller Uses of History
Some ineluctable realities
Contemplation of the macrohistorical record yields several foundational conclusions
about humans and the world they now face which cannot be forgotten if we are to think
realistically about the quality survival task; recall the suggestion in Chapter 1 that a
suitable peak goal for humanity might be one of seeing its lineage surviving, and
surviving well. The three realities to be now recapitulated as impediments to achieving
quality survival are: the what-to-do problem; the pseudospecies problem; and the global
overshoot problem.
1. Purposive behaviour is necessarily experimental---the what-to-do problem
Cultural and genetic evolution over millions of years has produced, in the modern human,
a layered behavioural-guidance-system under which, depending on the information being
received, particular biological, cognitive or emotional responses are activated. Thus an
immediate direct threat might trigger a genetically-programmed instinctive response of
greater or lesser specificity. A more nuanced what-to-do situation might trigger an
emotionally-directed response in the form of an impulsive choice from a limited range of
previously-learned behaviours. And then, late in the evolutionary story, came the
choosing brain, as we earlier called it. Here, the brain imagines the consequences of
alternatives to impulsive behaviour and chooses the first imagined alternative to generate
sufficiently positive feelings. That is, feelings act to limit the enormous range of
alternatives that would otherwise have to be explored cognitively before a behavioural
choice is made.
Language-based conceptual thinking was the technology which dramatically increased
the range and effectiveness of cognition for guiding behaviour. In reasonably stable
environments humans learn to behave in accordance with the slowly-evolving customs,
habits, roles and traditions of their own societies. But in non-routine, and hence stressful,
situations, leaders, and other decision-makers have come to increasingly rely on mental
models of reality to guide their choice of what to do. And in some areas, most notably in
science, people have learned how to upgrade such models in the light of experience.
Having said that, it needs to be recognised that all attempts to make rational decisions
(those based on ends-means thinking) in what-to-do situations are less than ideal for
reasons which include limited time, limited knowledge, pervasive complexity,
illogicalities and misperceptions. Given the difficulties of thinking critically and
comprehensively, decision-makers commonly resort to using ‘short cut’ heuristics or
seeking the advice of authority figures.
What the above means is that all behaviour, whether instinctive, emotionally-directed or
highly rational is, to some degree, experimental. The outcomes of an individual’s
decisions, particularly in novel situations, are never certain---hence the ‘law’ of
unintended consequences. So, when trying to solve a what-to-do problem rationally, one
must be routinely prepared to respond further as one’s actions prove inadequate for the
problem as initially conceived. Unfortunately, many what-to-do problems are also
‘wicked,’ an eye-catching word meaning that they have no definitive formulation (What
sort of problem is this?) and no criteria for identifying a conclusively ‘best’ solution. For
example, over what time horizon does one compare the costs and benefits of alternative
actions? Moreover, the family of issues that underlies each problem is itself likely to be
evolving. It is easy to conclude that most problems will never be solved, only managed
by cautiously ‘muddling through,’ or overtaken by events. Notwithstanding, these
difficulties are poorly recognised.
2. There is no We---the pseudospecies problem
From early hunter-gatherer times, human groups have used the technologies of division
of labour and territory-protection for improving their security and productivity. It was
through the evolution and elaboration of these technologies---plus their coevolution with
some related adaptations and with environmental changes---that the species came to be
organised into a loosely connected and dynamic (ever-changing) network of
hierarchically-stratified, territorially-based societies.
Unlike better-armed, group-living species such as wolves, Paleolithic humans were never
strongly selected for a capacity to self-inhibit aggressive behaviour towards trespassers of
their own species. This is consistent with the perception that before developing energyconcentrating weapons---and then it was too late---human groups had little capacity to
inflict lethal violence on each other. Thus, the untrained fighting style of (modern)
humans consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the bony
head/shoulders/ribcage area.283 While few individuals are highly aggressive, most
conform when it is their group or society which initiates aggressive behaviour; ordinary
soldiers can be trained to kill when ordered, but most are still reluctant. In brief, humans
tend to be aggressive towards strangers but, without weapons and appropriate training,
rather ineffectively so.
In those Holocene societies that learned to produce surplus storable food, both population
size and task specialisation increased; as did the use of social dominance (e.g. by
coercion, manipulation, deceit) far beyond that which had existed in subsistence societies.
And it is from these times that it becomes increasingly useful to describe humanity as
being organised into pseudospecies, meaning coherent groups that engage in periodic
competition, conflict and cooperation. In the broadest terms, these groups were, and still
are, political states and, within each state, a ruling class and a working class. Beyond that
breakdown, the hierarchy of pseudospecies extends upwards to associations of states and
downwards to factions and functional groups within classes. In complex hierarchical
societies, each individual is normally associated with multiple pseudospecies and may
move between such, e.g. between social classes, political parties, professions, football
Desmond Morris People Watching 2002.
clubs. In particular, ruling elites are almost always divided into vigorously-competing
pseudospecies with shifting memberships.284
Every pseudospecies behaves, in several respects, like a separate hunter-gatherer group.
In particular, group members are predisposed to feel friendly towards those within and
enmity towards those outside the group (not just trespassers). And from Paleolithic to
Modern times, the sharing of amity and enmity emotions has repeatedly been at the heart
of the individual’s success in satisfying his or her psychic needs, notably for bonding (the
need to ‘belong’285), for identity (being an autonomous individual) and for meaning in
one’s life (being part of ‘something larger than oneself’). For example: I am a Greek and
proud to be a Greek, not a thieving Trojan. We Greeks will conquer the Trojans, no
matter how long it takes.
This amity-enmity dichotomy is also the source of the dual standard of morality which
most people unconsciously hold, namely judging ‘strangers’ differently (moral alchemy!)
from one’s own ‘tribe’, be it a gang, class, ethnic group, nation or football club. In
extreme form it leads to a failure to recognise other pseudospecies as conspecifics, as
fellow humans; abominations such as ethnic cleansing, mass extermination and
unimaginable cruelty follow easily. Somewhat less immoderately, other pseudospecies
are seen as humans but, because of their ‘dangerous’ beliefs or their presumed past
behaviour, they are humans who have ‘foregone the right’ to be treated as ‘we’ aspire to
treat our own.
Armed conflict between groups or societies is a commonplace of history286 but
aggression, or hostility at least, between pseudospecies within hierarchical societies has
been equally pervasive. Thus, the majority of humans have been oppressed by their own
ruling classes for most of post-glacial history. A society of any complexity requires that
some of its members coordinate and direct the activities of the majority. With few
exceptions, these elite minorities have used their power to advance and protect their own
interests at the expense of majorities. Reforms and concessions which have improved
quality of life for the majority have most commonly come only in response to the threat
of civil unrest from the ‘dangerous classes.’287 During quieter times the elites seek to
reclaim such concessions. The prime example of modern times is the creation of welfare
states after the Second World War as a response to fascism and communism; and their
winding back with the demise of communism.
From Neolithic times, elites (soldiers, priests, bureaucrats, politicians etc.) have regularly
taken their peoples to war in search of resources coveted by the elites themselves---land,
slaves, women, converts, bullion, tribute etc. Notwithstanding this coercion, in times of
Hassan 2005
(Koestler 1967)
286 LeBlanc 2003
287 (Wallerstein 1995).
war or external threat, a state’s elites and its masses generally come together to
temporarily form one pseudospecies.
Burdened with rising populations or falling food supplies, elites have often been willing
to let their people slowly and surreptitiously starve (Let them eat cake); or, indeed, to use
war and conquest as technologies for culling their own populations. The link between
hunger and attacking the neighbours weakened with the coming of hierarchical societies.
It is only in the last few thousand years, starting with limited democracy in the Greek city
states, that humans have moved somewhat from seeing societies as naturally divided into
all-powerful rulers and masses with minimal rights. In some modern industrial nationstates, elites have managed to convince the majority of ordinary people that their political
decisions do not favour elite interests. But, even in a strong democracy, every new issue
of concern spawns a new mix of self-interested pseudospecies and a what-to-do problem
that cannot be solved in a demonstrably efficient and equitable manner.
Nonetheless, in societies where people are not hungry, think they are being treated
reasonably fairly (justly) and feel reasonably secure psychologically, amity and sociality
come to displace enmity and sociopathy (regarding others as enemies to be mistrusted
and exploited if possible). People develop an expectation that their interests will be
favoured acceptably often. Decisions get made and coordinated activity proceeds; people
do what is expected of them. So-called competitive societies, those where egoism is
admired (Greed is good!), run the risk of squandering those putative reserves of goodwill
and helpful friendliness which might buffer against social unrest.
This brings us to the point of accepting that there is a pseudospecies problem, namely the
difficulty that autonomous pseudospecies have in collectively agreeing (We agree…) to
work in a coordinated way towards ends judged to be mutually beneficial, ends which
could not be achieved by one group acting alone---the amplification effect.
Often, it is the pseudospecies problem which becomes the major impediment to the
inventing of a new social technology. It may be of course that not every relevant
pseudospecies construes the proposed behaviour as beneficial to them or they see it as
less beneficial than some other more-independent behaviour (its opportunity cost). Or
doubts may be felt as to what exactly is being agreed and what exactly will be achieved.
This last is where the pseudospecies problem and the what-to-do problem intersect. As
discussed above, outcomes of proposals for addressing what-to-do problems are always
uncertain and carry the risk of unintended consequences. It is understandable that groups
already living on the edge of survival might be averse to risking experiments with novel
behaviours, no matter how promising, and prefer to continue with ‘safe’ traditional
The pseudospecies problem is more conventionally known among political scientists as
agonism, a term borrowed from biologists. For biologists, agonism is that combination of
aggressive, defensive and avoiding behaviours which allow members of a species to
regulate its spatial distribution; and, probably, access to food and mates. Amongst
political scientists, agonists are sceptical about the capacity of politics to eliminate,
overcome or circumvent deep divisions within societies, e.g. of class, culture, gender
etc... They find many models of political behaviour, including liberalism and
communitarianism, to be far too optimistic about the possibility of finding an harmonious
and peaceful pattern of political and social cooperation.288 Agonists prefer to start their
theorising by asking how societies might first deal with such irreducible differences. It is
a question to which we shall return.
In most circumstances, it is much harder to achieve the benefits of coordination when the
pseudospecies involved are large collectives such as nation-states. Compared with
domestic agreements, there are several reasons why this should be so. First of all, trust is
scarce in international relations where, for centuries, ‘realist’ doctrines have prevailed,
namely, that the essence of foreign policy is to make yourself as militarily powerful as
possible, alone or through alliances.289 Cooperation becomes even more difficult
between nations that are already in conflict or have a history of conflict. Negotiators
from different countries are more likely than negotiators from the same country to
misunderstand each other’s values and to disagree about ‘facts’ and about what is a fair
distribution of costs and benefits.
Notwithstanding, states have been forming military alliances and making trade
agreements for millennia. It is in situations where the shared threat or opportunity is not
immediately obvious, or where the flow of benefits is not immediate, that international
cooperation proceeds slowly. Examples are plentiful in the fields of international law,
financial institutions and protection of the environment.
To claim ‘There is no We’ is just an extravagant way of making the point that it is
normally difficult, and often impossible, for two or more pseudospecies to find and take
coordinated actions that will benefit all. Part of that difficulty is the same difficulty as
that facing a single pseudospecies, or an individual for that matter, in any what-to-do
situation---all intentional behaviour is inescapably experimental. This is why
pseudospecies that see themselves in an ongoing cooperative relationship must be
prepared to revise their joint plans frequently. Even then, even when a degree of trust has
been achieved, all such relationships are probably best recognised as intrinsically fragile.
Cooperation within the existing system of pseudospecies is but one strategy for a
pseudospecies to advance its own interests. Conflict and coercion are other possibilities
which, in their own ways, are as problematic as cooperation. Sometimes there is a place
for competition in the sense of different pseudospecies seeking access to the same
resources but without trying to thwart each other’s efforts directly. Another less direct
strategy, one which does not take the prevailing order for granted, might be to try to
reshape the attitudes of ‘neighbouring’ pseudospecies so that the level of goodwill
Agonism Accessed 27 Nov 2008
Hans Morgenthau
between pseudospecies is more conducive to future cooperation, e.g. through cultural
exchanges, gifts, arms reduction...
Overall, the ineluctable realities we have identified as the what-to-do problem and the
pseudospecies problem are major constraints on what humans can achieve through
collective action. They greatly reduce the range of options from which a choice of (joint)
actions might eventually be made.
3. Overshoot---the accumulation of externalities
We come now to recapitulating the third of the ineluctable realities which, it is being
suggested, must be viewed unblinkingly, not forgotten or bypassed, if one is to think
critically about the quality survival task as it presents at the beginning of the 21st century
of the Common Era (and that is what we hope to do).
In my earlier book, Deep Futures,290 the 21st century was foreseen to be a difficult
century for humanity, one in which the successful pursuit of quality survival would
require the species to work doggedly to ameliorate the problems of war, poverty,
injustice, environmental degradation and sociopathy; or, more positively, pursue the goals
of peace, material wellbeing, social justice, environmental protection and sociality. The
pseudospecies problem (pervasive disagreement) was assumed to be soluble (eg through
a strong United Nations) and, while the presenting problems were great, they too were
not to be treated as insoluble.
I am now convinced, just a few years later, that this scenario, call it strong intervention, is
highly implausible. That is, one would be surprised in the extreme if it came to pass. For
me, it is a much more plausible scenario that this will be not just a difficult century, but a
disastrous one! Almost irrespective of anything that large numbers of well-intentioned
people might do, the existing problems of war, poverty, injustice, inequity, environmental
degradation and sociopathy will grow, not shrink. Under the combined effects of
drought, famine, war, mass migration, poverty, disease, resource exhaustion and
economic disruption, the world’s population will start falling well before current
estimates that global population will peak ‘naturally’ around 2070. Many indicators of
quality of life, including life expectancy, will slump. In all countries, but especially in an
increasing number of failed and war-torn states,291 it will become much harder for most
people to meet their everyday needs. Women and children, the old and the sick will be
most affected. Jobs will be few. Supply chains for basic commodities (eg food, fuel,
medicines) will break. Barter will become normal. Inflation will escalate. Health,
education, transport and police services will degrade. Power and water supplies will
become unreliable or worse. Roads and other infrastructure will be poorly maintained.
Crime and group violence will escalate. Violent protest and looting will be
commonplace. Ordinary people will live in fear. Mental illness will be endemic. People
(Cocks 2002)
Brookings Institute
will turn to authoritarian regimes for respite. In brief, cities everywhere will struggle to
avoid becoming giant lawless slums. Rural populations will be vulnerable to marauders
and incursions from displaced persons.
Such a dark-age ‘future’ has already arrived in parts of the world---most obviously in
parts of east and west Africa, the Middle East and South America. But it is also
appearing in parts of large cities in first world countries, e.g. France, Britain, USA. The
further questions surrounding this basic scenario of a world descending into Hobbesian
dystopia, a shambles, are How far and How fast? And what makes it plausible?
But how far? how fast?
If quality of life is going to degrade globally, one might expect it to degrade more slowly
in first world countries with their established institutions and the technological skills to
divert resources being used for discretionary purposes into essential services. On the
other hand, first world societies have directed very large, and now problematic, energy
flows into the construction and ongoing maintenance of networks of relationships
between pseudospecies. Resources such as labour and capital have been progressively
locked into specialised functions (tasks) on which other functions are highly dependent,
so-called long-chain dependency. This means that if the material-energy-information
flows along a link gets disrupted, and there are no contingency plans for restoring that
link’s function (as in a competitive just-in-time economic system), the disruption spreads
to other links. Just how far such malfunctioning spreads depends on the architecture of
the network, its patterns of connections between nodes of activity. In general, as
networks of functions become ever more tightly connected, they move towards
transmitting shocks rather than absorbing them, i.e. they become unstable. If a highlyconnected node, a ‘hub’, a power grid for example, is knocked out abruptly, whole
populations stand to suffer dramatic falls in their quality of life. If the same power grid
degrades slowly, people may have time to adapt and the impacts will be less dramatic;
but still ultimately destructive of people’s options. The 2008 global credit crisis, and its
subsequent transmission to the real economies of many countries, is a text book example
of how disruptions can spread in a highly connected (globalised) system. Russia’s
descent into chaos in the winter of 1991-92 did not spread globally but did illustrate how
an organised, albeit repressive, society can break down in just months.
In the world’s rich countries, where most people have a high standard of living compared
with second and third world (less developed) countries, people rely largely on markets,
including the employment and stock markets, for satisfying their daily needs; and they
rely on government to provide personal and property security. When markets and
governments fail to meet normal expectations, not only does quality of life drop for most
people, but they do not have coping and survival mechanisms and skills for meeting their
needs in more basic ways, e.g. using more labour, simpler technologies and less capital
and energy to grow food. More than that, their societies are not organised to facilitate
extra-market adaptations (e.g. providing vegetable plots in cities) or, indeed, to switch to
providing goods and services appropriate to changed lifestyles, e.g. wind-up radios, more
public transport.
By contrast, people are more self-sufficient, less dependent on markets, in poorer
countries. The exception to this is that the urban poor in such societies are particularly
vulnerable to rising food prices. Poor people’s lives invariably contain more hardship
and physical labour, more disease and early death, more hunger and violence; but the
collapse of markets around them does not cause them to fundamentally restructure their
lives, not if their only purchases are, say, cooking oil, salt and matches. Having said that,
the current global recession-depression is already hurting poor countries in several ways,
including falling capital inflows (including aid), falling commodity prices and job losses
in both export industries and in numbers of overseas guest workers.292
The happenings which do have relatively greater impact on the poor than on the rich are
natural disasters, epidemics and organised violence. When they are spared such shocks,
subsistence farmers, gardeners, fishers and herders can usually keep their societies intact,
as evidenced by, for example, the maintenance of habits, customs and rituals. It is when
such imposts turn people into refugees and displaced persons, or, indeed into marauders
and pirates, that their quality of life plunges. Forced migration, including the return of
desperate slum-dwellers to their villages, is doubly bad. Not only are the migrants
traumatised, but the areas they descend on become instantly overpopulated, with all the
possibilities which that creates for conflict between migrant and resident pseudospecies.
As evidenced by the late Bronze Age, such ‘knock on’ discontinuities can spread over
thousands of kilometres.
But none of the above constitutes evidence that, as of now, dystopic bottleneck conditions
are festering and spreading across more of the world. Indeed, two important direct
indicators of average (species-wide) quality of life, life expectancy at birth and under-five
infant mortality, continue to improve, even as global population is rising by some 70
million per year. Nonetheless, while life expectancy at age 15 has increased by two to
three years for most regions over the last 20 years, there are exceptions. Life expectancy
in Africa decreased by nearly seven years between 1980 and 2001, and for the transition
countries of Eastern Europe, in the same period, by 4.2 years for males and 1.6 years for
females. On the other hand, the global child mortality rate declined by almost one quarter
between 1990 and 2006, partly as a result of campaigns against measles, malaria and
bottle-feeding, and partly from improvements in the economies of most of the world
outside Africa. Gross World Income per head, which correlates strongly with health
status, increased by 47 per cent between 2000 and 2007. Prior to the 2006 food crisis,
living standards in the developing world had been rising dramatically for some decades..
The proportion of its population living in extreme economic poverty---defined as living
Economist 14/3/09 54-55 The toxins trickle downwards
on less than $1.25 per day (at adjusted 2005 prices)---fell from 52 percent in 1981 to 26
percent in 2005.293
While such global trends conceal marked differences between regions, and the quality of
the underlying data is questionable anyhow, they are prima facie evidence that, worldwide, quality of life is probably still rising. Having said that, and recognising that falling
child mortality is a major contributor to rising life expectancy, one suspects (there is no
direct data) that the species-wide figure for years of healthy life expectancy at age 15
might be stagnant or declining. The word ‘healthy’ here means ‘without disabilities that
constrain core activities.’
But, consider the debit side of the quality-of-life ledger:
Between the start of 2006 and 2008, the average world price for rice rose by 217 per cent,
wheat by 136 per cent, maize by 125 per cent and soybeans by 107 per cent.294 Suffering
amongst those who spend the bulk of their income on basic food has been immense and
food riots have occurred in dozens of the world’s cities. Concurrently, these soaring
grain prices have forced a sharp reduction in food aid, putting the 37 countries that
depend on the World Food Program for emergency food assistance at risk of social
breakdown. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) provisional estimates
are that, in 2007, 75 million more people were added to the total number of
undernourished relative to 2003–05.295 This represents an increase in the proportion of
hungry people in the world from 16 per cent to 17 per cent. It is true that over the past
half-century grain prices have spiked from time to time because of weather-related
events, such as the 1972 Soviet crop failure, but the situation today is entirely different.296
New and established trends are coming together which make it probable that real food
prices will keep rising in coming decades, and rising faster than real incomes.
Demand for grain will continue to increase as a result of population growth and, less
probably, as a result of the diversion of grain crops to ethanol production and meat
production. On the supply side there is little new cropland coming on stream to balance
onging losses to urban land uses and land degradation. In this century, irrigated
agricultural land per capita has been falling by one per cent per annum. This will
accelerate if Eurasia’s glaciers continue to melt. Climate change, as currently foreseen,
World Bank Poverty Net,,contentM
Accessed Dec 22 2008.
294 accessed Dec 12 2008
UN Food and Agriculture Organisation 2008 The State of Food Insecurity in the
World 2008
296 (posted April 2008) Accessed
Dec 12 2008
may allow cropping to expand in Canada and Russia but this stands to be offset by croparea contractions in the ‘breadbasket’ countries of the Southern Hemisphere. A trend that
may not be permanent but is worth noting is that grain consumption has exceeded
production in seven of the last eight years; the world’s stock of carried-over grain (2008)
has fallen to 55 days of world consumption, the lowest on record. The world’s grain
markets are only one poor harvest away from panic!
Between 1950 and 1990, energy-dependent technologies (fertilisers and machinery) and
new plant varieties allowed the world's farmers to increase grainland productivity by 2.1
percent a year, but between 1990 and 2007 this growth rate slowed to 1.2 percent a year.
Technological advances, encouraged by higher grain prices but discouraged by higher
oil-energy prices, could reverse this slowdown. However, there are no obvious
candidates for this role at the moment.
In 2009, with the economic crisis impacting most societies, the Global Peace Index, as
calculated by the Institute for Economics and Peace,297 has actually slipped. However,
contrary to popular belief, the world in the last twenty years has become more peaceful.
The frequency and lethality of wars has been declining since the end of the Cold War in
19895. Since 1990 more wars have ceased than have started and the number of negotiated
settlements has steadily increased6
Notwithstanding, according to one source,298 there were 31 significant military conflicts
in the world in 2008 compared with 25 in 1998. Apart from the direct suffering caused
by civil and international conflicts, these, along with hunger, are a major cause of forced
migration, a further indicator of declining quality of life. One partial measure here is the
number of people under the care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
including both internally displaced people and international refugees. In 2007 this
number rose by 2.5 million to 25 million.299 Refugee numbers dropped dramatically
when people returned home after the Balkans conflicts of 1992-1995, but have been
rising again since then.
Environmental degradation in the forms of drought, desertification, erosion, deforestation
and, most recently, sea level rise, has become an increasingly important source of the
hunger that triggers migration. One might guess that the proportion of the world’s people
experiencing a reduction in quality of life as a result of being forced to relocate is
continuing to rise but data to support that hypothesis is not available. While they are
suppositional and not factual, scenarios have been imagined which foresee a massive
increase in the number of environmental refugees in coming decades. For example, one
Peace, its Causes and Economic Value, 2009 Discussion Paper, Institute for Economics
and Peace,, accessed June 3 2009
298 accessed 11/12/08
UNHCR annual Report
of Gwynne Dyer’s climate change scenarios300 has Italy being overwhelmed by
environmental refugees from a blighted North Africa by 2036.
Living in a society where civil and political rights are poorly established and protected is
a pervasive obstacle to the achievement of high quality of life. Between 2004 and 2007,
some 43 countries, or more than 20 percent of the world total, saw their scores for freedomof-association decline---according to the calculations of Freedom House, a somewhatconservative non-government organisation.301 While the number of people in prison
worldwide is a relatively small nine million, the rate per 100 000 people jumped from
117 in 1992 to 154 in 2004.302 In quality-of-life terms, these figures are more likely to be
indicative of declining social cohesion than anything else. Authoritarianism does seem to
be on the rise again following the post-Soviet remission.
Mental and behavioural disorders affect more than 25 per cent of all people at some time
during their lives. They are present at any time in about 10 per cent of the adult
population. They are also universal, affecting people of all countries and societies,
individuals of all ages, women and men, the rich and the poor, from urban and rural
environments. They have insidious economic impacts and crippling impacts on the
quality of life of sufferers and their families. The World Health Organisation estimated
that, in 1990, mental and neurological disorders constituted 10 per cent of total disability
adjusted life years (DALYs) lost due to all diseases and injuries. This rose to 12 per cent
in 2000 and was projected to further rise to 15 per cent by 2020, partly due to a decline in
the incidence of childhood infectious diseases.303 Common disorders causing severe
disability include depressive disorders, substance-abuse disorders and schizophrenia.
Data is not available for judging whether a global citizen’s lifetime risk of developing a
mental disorder is increasing or decreasing; some predisposing factors are declining (eg
incidence of poverty) and others are increasing, e.g. the per capita use of psychoactive
substances, including opioids, stimulants, tobacco and alcohol. Suicide rates would seem
to be a good partial indicator of mental illness and, globally, from 1950 to 1995, suicide
rates increased by approximately 35 per cent in men and approximately 10 per cent in
women in all age groups.304 The reasons for the differences in rates among different age,
sex, and ethnic groups, as well as the change in rates since 1950 are not known. A
G Dyer Climate Wars . Scribe Melbourne 2008
in Freedom House Freedom in the World
World bank development review World Development Indicators 2008
WHO The World Healeth Report 2001 chapter 2 (Accessed Dec 17 2008)
pointer from one study is that, across 27 nations, alcohol consumption predicts suicide
Over the last three decades, longstanding communicable diseases such as tuberculosis,
malaria, and cholera have spread geographically and more than thirty previously
unrecognized communicable diseases, such as Ebola, HIV, Hantavirus and SARS, have
emerged as new threats to quality of life.306 The slow-moving HIV/AIDS pandemic has
already killed more than 20 million people and sickened between 34 million and 46
million; it is on the way to becoming the worst pandemic in history. A wide range of
disease–producing microbes are becoming increasingly resistant to antimicrobial drugs,
e.g. drugs for malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia.
Given such predisposing conditions as globalisation, population growth and urbanisation,
it can be argued that, for the fourth time in history, humanity is encountering a ‘great
wave’ of epidemic disease.307 The first of these came with the domestication of wild
animals (10 kya) and the second with the linking of East and West Eurasia by trade routes
(2500 kya). The third ‘great wave’ began during the era of transoceanic exploration and
trade expansion in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Bubonic Plague arrived in
Europe from Asia, and European explorers and settlers brought smallpox, measles,
influenza, and other diseases to indigenous populations across the Americas and
The last decade has witnessed a decline in the share of the world’s working-age
population (aged 15 years and older) that is in employment (known as the employmentto-population ratio). It stood at 61.4 per cent in 2006, 1.2 percentage points lower than ten
years earlier.308
At the time of writing, many of the world’s major economies are contracting, i.e. they are
producing goods and services at a lower rate than in the recent past. For very large
numbers of people, this world-wide recession-depression is having a direct impact on
their quality of life and, also, on their expectations or hopes for an improving quality of
life. Not only does unemployment rise as economies contract, but government revenues
(e.g. from taxes) fall, making the provision of government services (e.g. schools,
hospitals, police forces) more problematic.
There are other whole-of-world statistics which could be included here as partial
indicators of how quality of life has been changing in the last decade or so for the average
Lester D. Association of alcohol use and suicide in 27 nations of the world.
Psychological Reports 88(3 Part 2): 1129-1129, 2001. (3 refs.)
State of the world 2005
Worldwatch Institute State of the World 2005
308 ILO Global Employment Trends 2008
global citizen (e.g. air quality data, work-hours data, data on the psychological impact of
species extinctions and ecosystem destruction), but, on the basis of the grossly imperfect
indicators presented, are there tentative conclusions to be drawn?
Yes. With the exceptions of clear improvement in child mortality rates, and a possible
ongoing improvement in healthy-life expectancy for adults, the selected indicators are all
consistent with a subjective judgment that, on a decadal timescale, the (hypothetical)
average global citizen is experiencing slowly declining quality of life. As a whole, the
species is experiencing more hunger, violence, mental illness, dislocation, communicable
disease, political restrictions, unemployment and deteriorating collective services. The
burden is not being equally shared of course. Behind the average experience, a small
fraction of the world’s population is probably experiencing rising quality of life, even as
others are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of these imposts. It is in
populations where people’s ability to meet their physical and socio-economic needs is
already low that the present decline is most easily seen.
Four juggernauts
While our discussion is suggesting that gross quality of life is slowly declining rather
than improving, it makes no claim that this deterioration will continue, even though I
believe (nothing more) that it will. We have already concluded that predicting the future
behaviour of complex dissipative systems is a vanity. We cannot see how far and how
fast the present decline will go. Nevertheless, there is little to suggest that the percentage
of the world’s people that is hungry, traumatised, mentally ill, displaced, infected, fearful,
unemployed or dying young will decline in coming decades.
On the contrary, there is considerable agreement that a number of global-scale processes,
endogenous trends as unstoppable as juggernauts it would seem, are in train and which, if
not reversed, will, at some ‘tipping’ point, push the human ecosystem past its resilience
limits and trigger major reorganisation or disorganisation, perhaps on the scale of the
Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions. These ‘tectonic stresses,’309 these ongoing highmomentum processes, which, on balance, stand to make life harder, not easier, for most
people are:
Population growth
Depletion of renewable (eg fisheries) and non-renewable (e.g. oil, phosphorus) resources
Global warming
Homer-dixon The Upside of Down
Complexification of the global economy (carrying with it the threat of long-lasting global
recession-depression plus the further impoverishment of poor, but resource-rich
It is this perception of an impending disorganisation, an unravelling, a bottleneck with
pervasive quality of life implications which is being termed the Overshoot Crisis.
However, the difficulty of seeing how soon and deep this bottleneck might become is
emphasised when one appreciates how internal driving processes can amplify or quieten
each other, commonly in unintended ways. For example, the current global recessondepresson is probably slowing population growth, global warming and resource
depletion. Conversely, oil depletion is likely to slow economic activity and global
warming; an indication here is that five of the last six global recessions were preceded by
an oil price spike.311 And, of course, contingent episodes such as pandemics, wars and
mass migrations add further complication. It was in recognition of a similar perception--that the world faces, not just a set of large free-standing problems, but a meta-system of
global-scale interacting problems---that the Club of Rome coined the useful term global
Where though, the question remains, did these juggernauts come from? One answer is to
see them as externalities, as the cumulative unintended consequences of the efforts which
every pseudospecies, from individuals to nations, makes to improve its own quality-oflife prospects. Each pseudospecies chooses the technologies it will use to this end,
usually taking little account of the quality-of-life implications for other pseudospecies.
We might call Global Overshoot the tragedy of the invisible hand! It is the consequence
of numerous individual pseudospecies choosing technologies which generate externalities
(or precursors to externalities) in the form of population growth, resource depletion,
complexification and global overheating. For example, an extra child might help the
family but not the village. Narrowly rational people do not ensure a rational society.
The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain
clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a
treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to
take account of this clash and explain a good many of the
divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament
a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to
sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no
Bunker, S. (1985) Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the
Failure of the Modern State. University of Illinois Press.
311 Rubin, J 2009 Just how big is Cleveland?
312 [Club of Rome The Predicament of Mankind Prospectus 1970
conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal
reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really
gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly
objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or
the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hardhearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle
would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that
suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that
does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key
with the world's character, and in his heart considers them
incompetent and 'not in it,' in the philosophic business, even
tho they may far excel him in dialectical ability.
William James (1907), Pragmatism,313 Chapter 1
My scenario of an Overshoot crisis with a dystopic prognosis provides a reference point
for developing and critiquing several contrasting attitudes (habitual ways of regarding
issues) towards global change. This ‘baseline’ starting point is a loose acceptance that
the world is indeed experiencing resource depletion, global warming, population growth
and widening recession-depression; and that the paramount indicator, species-wide
quality of life, is more-or-less stagnant, moving up a little perhaps, or down a little,
depending on one’s values. The several attitudes to be now explored accept this
description of the contemporary world, but differ in the significance they attach to it in
terms of where it might lead and what, if anything, should be done about this potentially
overwhelming issue.
In the above quotation, William James is recognising that his fellow philosophers tend to
come to beliefs that are compatible with their inherent temperaments. This insight, plus
his famous distinction between two temperaments---tough-minded Empiricists and
tender-minded Rationalists---provides a basis for understanding the sharp differences in
attitudes towards the Overshoot crisis which are to be found in today’s public and
academic discussions of these matters. From the many possibilities lurking therein, I
have selected three contrasting sets of attitudes for comparison and have given them the
colloquial names of:
Don’t panic
Stop fiddling
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), Hackett Publishing
Rise like a phoenix
While these alternative viewpoints span the spectrum from tough- to tender-minded, as
will be explained, I have avoided perspectives which overtly draw their inspiration from
religious beliefs, political ideologies, rent-seeking agendas or Panglossian technological
Don’t panic
‘Don’t panic’ is the tongue-in-cheek advice on the cover of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the
Galaxy315 by Douglas Adams. It is hard for Adams’ hero not to panic when he realises
that ours is an insignificant planet blocking an inter-galactic freeway in an unfashionable
part of the galaxy. Notwithstanding, the advice is good. One is likely to think more
clearly and find a way out of trouble if the mind is not racing from one knee-jerk
response to another.
The tough-minded Empiricists whose response to my dystopic scenario is “Don’t panic,”
are sceptics who find it hard to believe in anything other than well-established facts. In
this, they are the heirs to a long line of thinking which goes back to the Greek sophists
and leads eventually to such great empiricists as Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Unlike
tender-minded Rationalists, they are slow to use induction, deduction and abduction to
create bold working hypotheses, spurs to significant action. They are wary of
conceptualisation and speculation, and that includes models. Their reason for warning
against panic is that they cannot understand how the tender-minded can confidently
foresee an ineluctably growing problem that must be tackled vigorously and at once.
Indeed, they have little faith that humans have the cognitive ability or data to plan
solutions to large what-to-do problems or to muster the cooperation this will normally
demand. For some, this means that empiricists are pessimistic and fatalistic as well as
sceptical. They would reply that they do not ‘cross their bridges before they come to
Other tendencies which James finds in empiricists are that they tend to think analytically
(look inwards rather than outwards) rather than synthetically and materialistically rather
than idealistically. Among other things, the latter means looking to new technologies
rather than new ideas as drivers of history. 316
Lefroy, EC and Hobbs, RJ (1993) Some human responses to global problems, Nature
Conservation 3: Reconstruction of Fragmented Ecosystems (Saunders, DA, Hobbs, RJ and
Ehrlich, PR (eds))Surrey Beatty, Chipping Norton
315 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
316 As Hans Eysenck described in his 1956 book Sense and Nonsense in Psychology,[4]
Eysenck compiled a list of political statements found in newspapers and political tracts and
asked subjects to rate their agreement or disagreement with each…Secondly, his
interpretation of tough-mindedness as a manifestation of "authoritarian" versus tenderminded "democratic" values was incompatible with the Frankfurt school's single-axis model,
What is the evidence?
More specifically then, given these tendencies, how might the tough-minded be expected
to view the four global processes suggested above as having the potential, singly or
together, to drive the human ecosystem towards a major reorganisation.
Global population growth is a well-studied process for which reasonably reliable and
current data is available. Fertility rates and death rates change slowly and smoothly most
of the time which means, other things being equal, that future population numbers can be
predicted, decades ahead, more successfully than most other social indicators. Both
Empiricists and Rationalists accept this and, on the basis of documented declines in
fertility rates, accept that the rate of global population growth is steadily declining,
meaning that world population will peak in 40-50 years. The Empiricists’ perception is
that there is little evidence that the world is coping any less effectively with each passing
year’s population increment (70 million but declining) and that there is therefore little
reason to try and lower the rate of population growth below what is happening naturally.
In any case it is not easy to see how that might be achieved, other than through making
better birth control methods freely available.
Depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources is well enough documented and not
to be denied per se. For discussion purposes, consider the non-renewable resources, oil
and phosphate; and the renewable resources, native-forest timber and ocean fisheries.
The available data is not incompatible with the idea that global production of both oil and
rock phosphate has peaked and will now begin to decline, failing major discoveries.
Indeed, prior to the current global recession, prices for both were beginning to rise and
will again rise as the global economy recovers (see below). Such price rises, provided
thay are not too sharp, provide timely and manageable signals to the economy to
reorganise. In the case of oil, which is important to all sectors of the economy, it is
fortunate that a number of substitute fuels and industrial feedstocks (biofuels, natural gas,
coal-seam gas, tar sands etc.) exist and are already being produced in increasing
quantities. In time, as supplies of carbon-based fuels (and fossil uranium) peter out, the
energy sector will again have to reorganise, probably around renewable-energy
technologies such as wind, wave and solar power (there are a number of others).
The phosphate situation is somewhat different. Phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient
for which there is no substitute. Global agriculture is massively dependent on phosphatic
fertilisers. Current reserves of rock phosphate will last many decades at current rates of
mining but, at some stage, triggered by rising prices, large-scale technologies for
recycling the phosphorus being dissipated in sewage and runoff will have to be
introduced. While that transition will further raise food prices (recycling is energy
intensive), the tough-minded, while hoping that this will not cause widespread pain.,
accept that this is a transition which, in the longer term, cannot be avoided.
which conceptualized authoritarianism as being a fundamental manifestation of
conservatism, and many researchers took issue
Over the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, the world lost 3 percent of its total forest area
through clear-felling for logs and woodchips and agricultural uses. In the same time,
timber and woodchips from single-species short-rotation plantation forests have
increasingly replaced the supply of these products from native forests. While plantations
now provide wood products more cheaply than native forests, the clearing of forests
(tropical forests in particular) to grow crops remains a matter of concern to those who
regret the loss of biodiversity that this entails. However, apart from the direct impact of
forest clearing on a small number of indigenous people, there is no data to suggest that
forest clearing affects, or will affect, quality of life for any significant proportion of the
world’s people. Conversely, the meat, palm oil and other products produced on cleared
forest lands meet people’s needs on world markets.
Ocean fish stocks have been massively depleted in recent decades with many fisheries
around the world collapsing. Nevertheless, as a result of more intensive technologies,
harvests of ocean fish have remained at around 85 to 95 Mt. Meanwhile, global
production of farmed fish and shellfish has more than doubled in value and weight (29 Mt
in 1997). Aquaculture now supplies more than one-fourth of of all fish that humans eat.
Notwithstanding, pressure on wild fish stocks has not declined with the introduction of
aquacultural technologies. First, demand for fish has grown in line with population
growth. Second, the farming of carnivorous species, salmon and shrimp for example,
requires vast quantities of wild-caught fish to feed confined stocks — indeed, the norm is
that two to five kilograms of wild-fish biomass (fishmeal) are required to produce one
kilogram of these high-market-value species. 317 Even if the wild-fish catch can be
maintained, a further change in technology will have to occur eventually---from farming
carnivorous fish to farming herbivorous fish such as carp.
Global warming, meaning a permanent increase in the temperature of the global
atmosphere and oceans, may or may not be happening and may or may not be
anthropogenic, i.e. be caused by human activities which result in a net emission of
greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Certainly the upward trend in atmospheric CO2
since, say, the beginning of the industrial revolution is real enough, but whether this
change in the atmosphere’s composition is responsible for the large proportion of years in
recent decades with temperatures well-above ‘average’ is not obvious. Perhaps this
‘cluster’ of warm years is simply a statistical fluctuation of the type which appears in all
time-series of measurements of natural variables? Or, perhaps the world is experiencing
a real upward tend in global temperatures, but not one due to the greenhouse effect? For
example, have global temperatures been simply rebounding since the (ill-defined) end of
the Little Ice Age towards those of the Medieval Warm Period?
Rosamond L. Naylor, Rebecca J. Goldburg, Jurgenne Primavera, Nils Kautsky,
Malcolm C. M. Beveridge, Jason Clay, Carl Folke, Jane Lubchenco, Harold Mooney, and
Max Troell (2001) Effects of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies, Issues in Ecology
Number 8 Winter 2001
The modelling work that has supported the conclusion, reached by the International Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) for example, that global warming is real and caused by human
activity, is rich and commendable318 but nonetheless contestable.319 Some Empiricists are
open-minded as to the truth of this conclusion, while others seize on recognised
conceptual flaws and database deficiencies in the main models as grounds for rejecting
those models’ conclusions.
Empiricists who accept the reality of global warming may still be doubtful as to whether
anything can or should be done about it. For those who cannot additionally accept that
greenhouse gases are the cause and that reducing these will ‘solve the problem,’ there is
not much that can be done. For example, alternative ways of cooling the planet, such as
loading the atmosphere with aerosol particles or putting reflectors in space, have been
suggested but, if anything, such are more problematical for sceptics than emissionsreduction.
Those Empiricists who can accept that the greenhouse gas hypothesis is plausible, albeit
‘unproven,’ may still be reluctant to advocate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
This could be for any of several reasons. One is the difficulty of assembling a
comprehensive range of alternative countervailing action-plans for consideration,
together with the further difficulty of associating each plan with a reliable estimate of its
costs and benefits or, more generally, its quality of life consequences. If attempted, such
a study might even find the ‘do nothing’ option to be superior! And then there is the
pseudospecies problem. Global warming has to be tackled at a global scale. It would
not suffice for Americans and Europeans to agree on what to do; the views of Chinese
and Indians would have to be considered. To date, neither China nor India accepts that
proposals for controlling global warming take sufficient account of their interests as
major industrialising societies.
But there is a response to the perception of global warming, and its potential to disrupt
billions of lives, which is compatible with tough-minded empiricism. Rather than
attempting to ameliorate, to forestall the avalanches of change which would occur if
‘worst case’ models of climate change turned out to be correct (e.g. by reducing
emissions), people might be able to cooperate sufficiently to monitor and give early
warning of the emergence of shocks and abrupt impacts and help those affected to adapt
to them, e.g. help people move to higher ground or relocate as sea level rises. While it is
true that this reactive or adaptationist approach would still require large-scale cooperation
if large-scale impacts were to occur, the practical problems to be addressed, and
responses to them, would be clear, and hence more readily agreed. The adaptationist
approach has the further advantage that it does not require massive ‘up-front’ investment
to ameliorate changes which may not even be the cause of global warming and its
318 Chapter 9
Understanding and Attributing Climate Change
consequences; or to ameliorate changes which may never occur. It should not be taken as
derogatory to label the adaptationist approach to global warming as ‘muddling through’
or reactive.
Global recession-depression is the fourth of the dark horsemen hypothesised to be
presaging dystopia. The reality of the abrupt unravelling of the highly-connected global
financial system and the global ’real’ economy which began in 2008 has been plain to the
tough- and the tender-minded alike. It was of little surprise to the tough-minded that
there was a near-total failure of ‘experts’ to foresee the onset of this bifurcation and
equally unsurprising that there is much disagreement as to its causes and its prognosis.
Historically, depressions have led to output falls of the order of 10-15 per cent over
several years, but could the present reversal be much deeper and much more prolonged?
The possibility that the global economy-financial system might never return to anything
like its present size and structure is barely contemplated. Could international currency
markets collapse? The plethora of what-to-do remedies and rescue operations being tried
by weakly-cooperating individual governments in their efforts to restore the status quo
ante, attests to the limited understanding humans have of the monstrous non-linear
system they have created.
Empiricists too have little confidence that the course of the current recession-depression
can be predicted. Nor do they have much confidence in the ability of the global
community to slow or reverse the present recession-depression. Indeed, they have doubts
as to whether this is even desirable. As pointed out by Joseph Schumpeter, with his ideas
of ‘creative destruction,’ the death of old enterprises releases ‘locked up’ resources for
the establishment of new enterprises, better-adapted to an ever-changing world.320 The
same idea is found in Buzz Holling’s thinking about the processes of destruction,
simplification and renewal in natural ecosystems.321 If allowed to run its course (e.g. no
bailouts), the present recession-depression will cleanse the economy of numerous
activities with high opportunity costs. Notwithstanding, Empiricists who value the idea
of high quality of life for most people, will still see it as important for governments to
support people who have lost access to employment and publicly-funded services as this
downturn spreads.
Summing up tough-mindedess
In terms of responding to a scenario of global Overshoot ending in total social
breakdown, the tough-minded are likely to have a reactive or wait-and-see attitude
towards the four global-scale processes suggested as ineluctably increasing the
probability of such an outcome. Reluctant as they are to generalise, the tough-minded
have learned that when large complex systems are subjected to disruptive forces they tend
to self-reorganise in ways which counter or negate the impacts of those disruptions. The
tough-minded believe in closely monitoring these global-scale processes so that people
know what is happening at any time; and, if and when quality of life can be seen to have
been impacted, practical steps can be taken to redress those impacts. First put out the
‘spot fires.’ Their ‘early warning’ and ‘first aid’ attitude to the global problematique is
understandable in light of their lack of confidence in the global community’s ability to
understand and manage population growth, resource depletion, global warming and
economic complexification. They note the irony that a global-scale social breakdown
will at once halt the very juggernauts that have supposedly caused that disorganisation. It
worries Empiricists that many (perhaps most) of the relationships implicit in the reference
scenario cannot be investigated via the methods of experimental science.
Two ways of being tender-minded
In terms of William James’ distinction, a tender-minded rationalist is one who, in the
spirit of the Enlightenment, is able to accept the Overshoot-diagnosis as a plausible
working hypothesis. That is, in the absence of effective intervention, the unfolding
consequences of global population growth, resource depletion, global warming and
complexification of global networks will be, indeed, already are, highly threatening to
species-wide quality of life. Rationalists, more so than Empiricists, have learned, from
others, or from experience, to trust reason as a basis for action. More strongly, they want
to use their reason to guide their behaviour. They are readier to come to inductive
generalisations and to accept abductive explanations, ie those that are consistent with the
facts. Compared to Empiricists, they are willing to accept lower levels of proof.
Sometimes, because no reasoned position can ever be fully justified, Rationalists can be
tempted to retreat into dogmatism when confronted with scepticism and accusations of
naïveté. Normally though, Rationalists will recognise that their mental models of what is
happening and what to do are likely to be wrong and likely to need correcting in light of
experience and changing circumstances.
More generally, the ‘how-to-intervene’ problem is enormously challenging and has no
truly convincing answer. In principle, Rationalists want the global community to address
both causes and consequences of global Overshoot. This means, firstly, that they will be
looking for ways to slow, reverse, modify or adapt to one or more of the ‘big four’ global
trends.322 Secondly, they will be looking to forestall or, if that cannot be achieved,
mitigate (from mitigare: to soften) the adverse quality-of-life consequences, the suffering,
lurking in these trends. In that last they are at one with the Empiricists.
This is the point where it is necessary to make a distinction between Rationalists who
believe that effective intervention at the present stage of the Overshoot crisis is possible
and Rationalists who believe that the Overshoot crisis is going to run its course,
irrespective of the efforts of well-intentioned, knowledgeable humans, i.e. Rationalists
who are ‘immediate interventionists’ versus Rationalists who are ‘post-bottleneck
reconstructionists.’ The latter group’s somewhat different perspective is that a wellprepared, forward-looking global community has reasonable prospects, after passing
through an inevitable dystopic bottleneck, a great contraction, in which quality of life
plunges, of rising, like a phoenix from the ashes and reconstructing a long-lasting human
system in which quality of life steadily improves for most people. We will discuss these
contrasting tender-minded attitudes under the admonitory headings, ‘Stop fiddling’ and
‘Rise like a phoenix.’
Stop fiddling
Popular legend has it that Emperor Nero played the fiddle (lyre) while the Great Fire of
Rome burned in 64 CE. The admonition of the immediate-interventionists to ‘Stop
fiddling and try to prevent the fire from spreading’ is a metaphor for an attitude which
sees the unfolding consequences of global Overshoot as highly threatening to specieswide quality of life; and, furthermore, as a matter of urgency, the global community (the
global ‘fire brigade’) should (and can) intervene vigorously to slow or reverse these
Those who are looking to intervene at once to ameliorate or prevent a dystopic collapse
over coming decades include governments, inter-government organisations, nongovernment organisations, enterprises and individuals. While each of these has its own
capacities for intervention and its own sense of priorities, governments have a collective
responsibility and inevitably carry much of the load. Our purpose here is not to discuss
the many particular recommendations for immediate intervention that have been made.
Rather, it is to highlight a handful of principles and priorities that might or should be
guiding the making of such more-specific choices; and to ask what the proponents of
immediate intervention hope to achieve in the longer term. .
For a start, it is clear that a comprehensive approach, a ‘grand plan,’ will never be
possible and that a mixture of partial, heuristic and instrumental approaches will have to
be used. At first sight, there is a body of ideas that has been developed to assist with
making multi-faceted decisions under non-certainty. That methodology would suggest
searching for the mix of interventions with the highest expected quality-of-life benefits
into the future; and then regularly revising one’s plans as circumstances change.
Unfortunately, the time, data, probabilities, values, resources etc for taking such an
approach are not available. The rationalist ideal is again found to be constrained.
Just as comprehensiveness is not possible, its opposite, ‘tunnel vision,’ should be
avoided, i.e. avoid addressing just one dimension (the global economy, say) of the global
problematique while neglecting its other dimensions (i.e. resources, population, climate).
Here, it is helpful to ask of any policy developed to address issues in one dimension what
its implementation might mean for issues in other dimensions (all problems exist in the
context of other problems). Or, more proactively, one should be looking for interventions
which address multiple issues simultaneously. This can, in fact, be observed in current
discussions on how to use government funding to revive a flagging global economy.
Beyond lubricating the financial sector, government funding can play a useful role in, for
example, improving infrastructure, and hence resource flows; or, supporting research into
the mechanisms of climate change and population change; or improving quality of life
directly by improving health and education services.
For the purpose of developing a suite of ‘high priority’ interventions, it is necessary to
recognise which unwanted aspects of the juggernaut processes are mitigable and worth
mitigating and which can be adapted to and are worth adapting to; the logic is that of
medical triage. For example, sea level rise is one consequence of global warming which,
given the high proportion of the world’s population living near the tidal zone, has major
quality-of-life implications for the species; mid-latitude droughtiness is another. Many
Interventionists think that the rate of sea level rise would be mitigated (slowed) if
greenhouse gas emissions were to be reduced by 80 per cent by 2050. Or, more
adaptively, those living in the coastal fringe can move to higher ground---if such is
nearby and relatively unpopulated. But those so ‘invaded’ will simultaneously lose some
of their quality of life, an illustration of how all mitigatory and adaptive responses to the
stresses of overshoot produce both winners and losers. Such conflicts of interest between
pseudospecies have to be resolved politically, often with great difficulty, or
unsatisfactorily. That is why technological solutions, which are imagined to create fewer
conflicts of interest, are so commonly promoted by politicians, eg. building dykes against
rising seas; capturing and storing carbon emitted from coal-fired power stations.
As the Overshoot crisis broadens and deepens, conflicts of interest stand to consume
much of the available political energy and that is dangerous for quality of life in the
longer term---innovation becomes very difficult. More than that, Heilbroner (1993: 113)
points out that in times of social crisis people often turn towards authoritarianism in the
belief that it will be better able to cope than democratic structures can. People will not
tolerate a society where they are subject to periodic upheavals. A good example is
fascism. In the 1930s fascism brought stability to fluctuating economies by reducing
freedom at a time when there was a stalemate between democracy and what is nowadays
called neo-liberalism (Polanyi 1944; 2001). Stability of expectations is clearly an
important part of quality of life. Even in quieter times, many are willing, with help from
the state, to sacrifice freedom and democracy for security. With the highest priority, the
authoritarian threat must be held at bay. But how? Because the social technologies for
strengthening democracy cannot just be taken off the shelf, it is important that adequate
resources be found for generating and trialling ideas for improving democratic processes,
e.g. making them less adversarial, more dialogic.
It is a very general principle that people can often adapt to large changes if such do not
happen too quickly. So, even if the juggernaut processes cannot be stopped, all
interventions which might delay their impact need to be evaluated. Moves to protect
national economies from the vagaries of the global economy (e.g. via job creation
schemes) would be an example. Using some form of taxation or rationing to slow the
rate of depletion of oil and other minerals would be another. Measures to slow the rate of
population growth, educating women for example, might take decades to bite but could
mitigate social unrest in countries with high birth rates, e.g. in east Africa.
What of other principles for helping identify priority interventions? Some are selfevident, like attempting to mitigate-adapt to changes directly reducing quality of life for
large blocks of people, especially those already disadvantaged, e.g. food and water
shortages. Equally, attempts should be made to pre-empt ‘high impact but low
probability’ contingencies such as large-scale resource wars, ‘runaway’ global warming
and permanent global–scale depression..
A scenario for optimists
The more optimistic advocates of immediate intervention seem to think the global
community can go a long way towards slowing, reversing and adapting to the juggernaut
processes underlying the Overshoot crisis; and towards ameliorating the accompanying
negative impacts on quality of life. A scenario which would not surprise them might run
something like this:
Global warming and its downstream consequences will be mitigated and adapted to,
albeit belatedly, using a mix of energy-saving measures, strategic retreat, renewable
energy and carbon capture and trading.
The global economy will recover from recession-depression more rapidly than otherwise
through the use of public investment, redistribution programs and fiscal-monetary
measures. Once recovered, the global economy will be reformed and proofed against
further runaway disturbances through the use of measures for slowing capital transfers
between currencies, stabilising exchange rates and regulating risk-taking market
Interventionists recognise that they can do very little about global population growth and,
in any case, it is a juggernaut that is already slowing. Notwithstanding, there will be
regions of the world where intervention to improve quality of life and to lower birth rates
might be judged a priority, i.e. regions where rapid population growth has spawned
hunger, disease and war. For example, outlawing the international arms trade would
make war a smaller problem than it is. There will also be regions where mass movements
of people will need to be managed. In the developed world, intervention to promote
acceptance of simpler lifestyles will not slow global population growth but might be
Solow RM, 2009, How to understand the disaster , New York. Review of Books, 56(8)
m_term=How+to+Understand+the+Disaster, accessed April 28 2009
encouraged on the grounds that this will make it an easier task to feed the billions yet to
come---the philosophy of “live simply that others might simply live.”
As resources are depleted, the real costs (energy, labour etc) of delivering supplies to
users rise which, if the economy is operating at capacity, means fewer goods and services
will be available for final consumption. For example, if the energy required to extract and
market a barrel of oil increases, that additional energy etc. is now lost to the rest of the
economy. Alternatively, as such real costs rise, market forces which mitigate and adapt
to this loss are likely to emerge. If the supply schedule of a resource rises, its marketclearing price will rise and ration what is available. Also, users of the resource will begin
looking for cheaper substitutes, eg gas for oil. Recycling may increase where this is
technically possible eg, for metals, phosphate. Technologies for improving resource-use
efficiency (resource input per unit output) may be sought, e.g. fuel-efficient cars. In
general terms, depletion of resources triggers a self-reorganisation of the product mix and
the technology mix being used. If this self-reorganisation takes place fairly slowly, it will
not necessarily be obvious that the reorganisation has reduced---or improved for that
matter---quality of life.
If however a reorganisation takes place rapidly by human standards, people’s lives will
be disrupted and their quality of life will probably fall. In such situations Interventionists
may look to introduce public programs which slow depletion (e.g. extraction quotas) or
which speed up and improve the adaptive and mitigative responses generated by market
forces, e.g. labour market programs, subsidies for recycling and for research into
substitutes and efficiency–measures.
Resource extraction can trigger other side-effects (externalities) which Interventionists
may seek to mitigate or adapt to. Pollution in its many forms is a good example, e.g. air
pollution from burning fossil fuels for transport and electricity generation. Resource use
of itself can lead to resource depletion, e.g. loss of biodiversity through land clearing;
degradation of poorly-managed arable land.
Finally, in the case of renewable biological resources such as fisheries and forests,
Interventionists will probably seek to avoid depletion by having harvesting regulated to
levels below maximum sustainable yields.
Managed markets
The tender-minded Rationalists who want the global community to ‘stop fiddling’ and
intervene decisively in the global Overshoot process have a characteristic approach to the
how-to-intervene problem, namely a managed markets approach.324 Under this
Ecological macroeconomics:Consumption, investment, and climate change JM Harris
Real-world Economics Review # 50 2009 (accessed Sept 13 2009)
perspective, the ordinary market processes of the economy are expected to spontaneously
counter the advance of the various juggernauts to a considerable extent, e.g. bringing
profitable new technologies to market. But it is equally recognised that a variety of
collective actions will still be needed to address problematic aspects of the Overshoot
process which are external to the market economy. For example, unmanaged markets
will not provide goods and services for which there are no effective buyers, e.g. health
and education services for poor people. Thirdly, the managed markets perspective
recognises that some major threats to quality of life cannot be ameliorated by either
governments or markets, at least not in the space of a few decades, e.g. global population
Perhaps because it is too far off to have triggered consideration, it is not clear how
Interventionists think the human ecosystem will be evolving and functioning after it has
passed through a much less disruptive bottleneck than would have been the case without
strong intervention. Implicitly, once effective measures have been taken to mitigate and
adapt to the juggernaut processes of Overshoot, much of the human ecosystem’s preexisting structures and processes will still be intact and poised to evolve further, free from
the overhanging threats associated with economic complexification, resource depletion,
global warming and the fallout from relentless population growth. While the
evolutionary trajectory of this post-bottleneck ecosystem cannot be foreseen, it might
well present as a world where fewer people are using less energy and social–cultural
change is taking place more slowly than in today’s world; a reformed world rather than a
transformed world. It stands to be a more sustainable world, but one which would still
seem quite familiar to postmodern people.325
We have now identified two contrasting attitudes towards the proposition that the human
ecosystem has entered a global Overshoot crisis which is leading into a dystopic
bottleneck where quality of life will plummet for a large fraction of a much-reduced
global population. One is a tough-minded ‘wait-and-see’ attitude whose advocates are
empiricists. They are willing to implement adaptation and mitigation measures but feel
they must wait till problems and damaging trends are (more) clearly evident.
The second attitude is a form of tender-minded rationalism whose advocates believe that,
in the absence of massive immediate reforms, the reference scenario with its vision of a
rapid descent into tohu-bohu is all too likely to come to pass. These immediateinterventionists are optimistic in the sense of being willing to act as though the global
Raskin P, Banuri T, Gallopín G, Gutman P, Hammond A, Kates R, Swart R(2002)
Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead, A report of the Global
Scenario Group, Stockholm Environment Institute, Boston
Mulgan, P (2009) After Capitalism, Prospect, Issue 157,, accessed 28 April 2009
community, using a managed markets approach to intervention, can ensure that the dark
future of the reference scenario will be briefer and less disruptive than would otherwise
be the case. They have a level of confidence that the global community, governments
and markets together, will mostly be able to make rational decisions on how to
mitigate/adapt to foreseeable and emerging problems associated with Overshoot. A
depopulated, deurbanized, deindustrialised world awash with displaced people can be
avoided. And they do not see the pseudospecies problem, the difficulties that interest
groups have in working cooperatively, as a towering barrier to successful intervention;
theirs is not a world ruled by thugs and macroparasites.
Rise like a phoenix
We come now to our third selection from various possible attitudes towards the reference
scenario, i.e. towards the idea of an Overshoot crisis with dystopic consequences,
including currency wipe-outs, depopulation, deindustrialisation and deurbanisation. It
too is a rational tender-minded attitude, like that of those who would intervene strongly to
minimise the entangled impacts of various juggernaut processes on quality of life for the
world’s peoples over coming decades. Differently though, it is an attitude which regards
immediate-interventionists as far too optimistic, believing as they do that the global
community can reform slow, mitigate and adapt to the momentous processes that are
already reshaping and redirecting many elements of the human ecosystem. The
alternative perspective now to be considered is that it is already too late to stop a massive
disorganisation and simplification of the human ecosystem from occurring, more-or-less
as the reference scenario suggests.
However, while deeply pessimistic about the immediate trajectory of the world system,
this attitude, tagged here as Post-Bottleneck Reconstructionism, is ultimately optimistic.
How is that? The metaphorical admonition to ‘Rise like a phoenix’ is a reference to the
mythic phoenix bird which self-immolates every 500 years only to rise anew, reborn from
its own ashes. The implication is that after passing through an inevitable dystopic
bottleneck, a great contraction in which quality of life plunges, it might be possible to
reconstruct a long-lasting human ecosystem in which quality of life steadily improves for
most people.
Is it totally preposterous, this scenario of a world experiencing a collapse in the social
processes that allow daily life to continue meeting people’s basic needs? It has happened
before on a regional scale many times but perhaps not globally since the volcanic winter
following the Mt Toba eruption 70 kya. Under the threat of a superpowers nuclear war,
fear of such a scenario was widespread during the mid-20th century. Today, many
respected scientists and academics, including James Lovelock, Thomas Homer-Dixon
and Ronald Wright326 and respected science journalists such as Howard Kunstler ?? and
Rees Lovelock Homer-Dixon, Wright The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging
Catastrophes of the TwentyTwenty-first Century is a book by James Howard Kunstler
(Grove/Atlantic, 2005)
Paul Roberts327 have concluded that they would not be surprised by the eventuation of
some version of such a scenario. And to further help us to imagine what this looming
bottleneck could be like, there is a long tradition of science fiction that explores life in
apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic worlds.328
Having made the working assumption that the world system is sliding into an inescapable
dystopic bottleneck, and given that the proponents we are talking of are tender-minded
Rationalists who want to facilitate and expedite a post-bottleneck recovery in quality of
life, what might Reconstructionists advocate? What is their strategy for helping global
society rise like a phoenix? There are many possibilities, but let me elaborate one based
on the ‘Noah’s Ark principle.’ Faced with an inundation he could not prevent, the
mythical Noah built a large boat which safely housed a variety of animals until the floods
retreated. The animals were then released to repopulate the Earth. Transposing this ‘be
prepared’ principle to the prospect of global Overshoot, Reconstructionists argue that,
before pervasive collapse arrives, there is a window of opportunity during which the
global community should do as much as possible to prepare for reconstruction.
As with the Immediate-Interventionists, there is an elephantine assumption here that the
global community’s various pseudospecies (governments, enterprises, non-government
organisations) will be able to agree on what should be done, and be able to cooperate to
attempt it. It would help here if Reconstructionists could convince people at large that an
extreme-case scenario is plausible, although one imagines that most people will find it
impossibly frightening to contemplate the destruction of their civilisation. And yet, a
society that cannot and will not even consider the possibility of such a collapse cannot
organise to better survive it. It would be ironic if collective action were to become an
idea in good currency only after the organisational structures that would allow collective
action had become dysfunctional! .
Just as Noah conserved biological capital, the Reconstructionists’ task can be viewed as
one of conserving and/or constructing an appropriate endowment of ‘capital’ to leave to
the survivors of the bottleneck experience. This is where difficult questions start to
suggest themselves---what to try to bequeath will depend on what the survivors’ situation
is assumed to be. For example, when will stable new patterns of social organisation
begin emerging from the disorder of the bottleneck period? Are we talking decades or
centuries? What form will those emerging societies take? Will they be anarchic, tribal or
hierarchical? Will nation states exist? How will societies be energised? Will there be
mechanical power, electric power, animal power? Irrespective of Reconstructionists’
efforts, what cultural and physical capital will survive the bottleneck?
Paul Roberts (accessed 10 Mar 2009) A fine example is
George Steward (1949 (1999)) Earth Abides, Millennium London.
The aftermath: rolling backwards through history
While it is largely unpredictable, the behaviour of the global system as it is pushed into
self-reorganisation by population growth, resource depletion, economic complexification
and global warming, is not unbounded in its possibilities. For example, if people are to
survive, and we can assume some will if there are no nuclear wars and winters, they will
need to keep producing food by cropping, herding, fishing, hunting or foraging. If people
persist, so must technologies for food consumption (e.g. fire, cooking) and production. It
can also be assumed that people will try to live in intentional communities of some sort to
secure the benefits of cooperation, e.g. physical security, food sharing. If so, language
will also survive, perhaps with a degree of splitting and simplification, depending on
which communicative and cognitive technologies also survive. However, other than
supporting small populations of scavengers, large cities will not survive extended
disruption to their food, water and energy supplies. And, as recently demonstrated in
Baghdad, recommissioning degraded infrastructure is an enormous task, even with
outside help.
It only takes a few such circumscriptions to create a space where one can think about the
post-bottleneck world in a concrete way. For example, let us suppose that, come the 22nd
century, our great–grandchildren or beyond have survived the worst of the bottleneck and
are beginning to lead lives which are more settled and routine but still highly precarious.
The Ecumene (inhabited world) might be somewhat smaller than it is today, but not
dramatically so. Mid-latitude deserts may have expanded and coastal plains lost to rising
seas but, elsewhere, one can imagine a thin smear of small subsistence villages
distributed across the continents in patterns not dissimilar from today’s food-growing
regions; in total, the human, mostly rural, population is likely to be very much smaller.
Crop yields per worker stand to be low and variable for reasons which include more
climate variability, no mechanisation, no artificial fertilisers, no well-adapted
management skills and plant varieties poorly adapted to new climate patterns. As in the
early Neolithic period, or the early Middle Ages, any food surpluses will be insufficient
to reliably support unproductive soldiers, priests and city-dwellers. Some villages might
be able to support a blacksmith; others would need to trade precious surpluses for irontipped tools. With an anvil and a hammer a blacksmith can make everything else he
needs; then he can make items needed for farming, building, cooking etc..
There will of course be some favoured areas, refugia, where food surpluses come easily.
For example, as coastal waters penetrate inland they will become nutrient-rich and
support larger fish populations. In general, renewable resources will be recovering from
their pre-bottleneck exploitation; foraging prospects will improve. Communities capable
of producing surpluses will have to trade off the security offered by stored food against
the risks of attracting marauders and displaced people; or the risks of allowing their own
populations to grow; or the risks associated with becoming a hierarchical society.
Creating an inheritance
Whether or not it actually guides their behaviour, these village communities could not but
benefit from knowing how past societies have made these sorts of choices and what the
consequences were. Indeed, just knowing that their forebears had to make similar
choices is likely to boost a community’s sense of identity. However, it is doubtful if the
significance of surpluses and what happens to them would be appreciated by postbottleneck villagers, at least not without assistance; few enough contemporary people
understand how food surpluses have influenced history. Here then is a first task for the
post-bottleneck reconstructionists---write a potted ecological-evolutionary history of the
species, specifically for bottleneck survivors and with a focus on the adaptive
consequences of major innovations in material, social, cognitive and communicative
technologies. Perhaps an update of Gordon Childe’s classic ‘Man Makes Himself’ would
suffice.329 However imperfectly, we know much of potential value to our descendants--if we can but transmit knowledge to them across the discontinuity we have just entered.
More generally, many ideas about what to try to bequeath flow from the modest starting
assumption that the human ecosystem, as it emerges from bottleneck times, will be reorganising into numerous small communities of peasant farmers. Today, nearly half the
world’s people still live in villages of one sort or another. Given the Phoenix scenario,
one can imagine most of these becoming dysfunctional, or even abandoned, under
impacts such as crop failures, loss of government services, waves of refugees and loss of
markets for selling cash crops and buying simple manufactures. Nevertheless,
depending on how long the bottleneck lasts, sites of existing villages are likely to become
the loci around which post-bottleneck societies begin to reorganise, places where people,
extended families perhaps, come together for mutual protection, to share knowledge and
meaning, to undertake collective enterprises, to feel a sense of belonging etc..
Assistance to these bottleneck survivors might be most useful if structured around the
goal of helping them solve their immediate (cf. long-term) problems. Here, it seems
plausible that these will be not dissimilar to the sorts of problems that modern scholars
infer to have faced village-based farming societies as they have emerged around the
world from the early Holocene onwards. For example:
Managing food production and distribution under uncertain weather conditions
Managing population size and composition
Managing relations with neighbouring villages
Protecting themselves from marauders in search of food, women, slaves, valuables etc.
Protecting themselves from coercive self-serving-leaders
Childe Man Makes Himself
Improving technologies for routine tasks
Creating meaning and identity for themselves
These then are the sorts of problems the Reconstructionists might want to help with. Let
us assume so for present purposes. If, and it does not seem very probable,
Reconstructionism were to become an idea in good currency, resources might become
available for assembling technology recipes and physical capital, either existing or
imaginable, for the present generation to transmit to post-bottleneck generations; and for
setting up ‘time tunnels’ for transmitting them. That is, Reconstructionists would be
using the lull before the storm to create-document technologies and create-conserve
artefacts specifically for the benefit of the present generation’s (great?) great
It may well be of course that, after living through several generations of increasing
disorganisation, our descendants will have lost all understanding of a science-based world
view and reverted to animism or theism. After all, look at how little impact
Enlightenment thinking has today on a large majority of the world’s population. Perhaps
our descendants might conclude it sensible to reject any help from those who triggered
their discomfort!
It would be premature to make lists of specific technologies, artefacts etc which a
Reconstructionist initiative might decide to transmit to post-bottleneck survivors. Ideally,
the selection and construction of such a bequest’s components would emerge from an
extensive program of dialectical discussions, consultancies and research involving
numerous historians, contemporary villagers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists,
technologists, scientists, sci-fi writers, futurists etc.(Why not degrees in post-bottleneck
studies?). The best candidate institution for managing such a program might be
something like a UN-based World Commission for Post-bottleneck Reconstruction. Or, in
the absence of an international initiative, countries could still plan for the long-term
survival of their own people.
What can be done here is to note, in relation to each of several challenges to postbottleneck village-life, a few of the suggestions and observations likely to appear in
discussions on just what cultural and physical capital has a good claim to be made
available to the bottleneck survivors. These points represent the merest flavour of the
many that might be raised.
The food problem
Urban refugees, in particular, will have little idea of basic agronomic practices including
seedbed preparation, watering, weed control, plant nutrition (including recycling) and
harvesting techniques. Well-designed implements, including wheelbarrows, will help.
Making allotment gardens available to city dwellers now might help preserve cropping
Growing food without the help of draft animals or machinery is physically demanding
and for much of the year, totally time-consuming. Using draft animals increases output
but such have to be fed and husbanded.
Survivors will need ways of diversifying and stabilising food supplies, including the use
of mixed plantings, some hunting and gathering, trade with neighbours, raising domestic
livestock. Any experimentation (e.g plant breeding) will have to be on a small scale.
Although survivors will need to supplement crops by foraging and hunting, it would seem
almost impossible to transmit such landscape-dependent skills through manuals.
Technologies for sharing and distributing food can smooth out minor fluctuations in food
supplies. Such practice will also contribute to group cohesion.
Survivors will need simple technologies for protecting stored food, including tubers and
root crops, grain, flesh, fruit and nuts, from rodents and insects and decay. Good rat traps
protect grain and capture food. Survivors will need technologies for protecting growing
crops from birds and animals, e.g. birdlime, traps, fences.
The population problem
Depending on the productivity of the local environment, villages with populations
smaller than, say, 50 or larger than, say, 150 are likely to encounter problems of, amongst
others, achieving peaceful governance, sufficient defence capability and co-ordination of
collective actions.
In principle, the population of an aftermath village and its surrounding farmland and
other territory---the stocking rate---needs to be well below the long-run carrying-capacity
of that territory. A low stocking rate confers resilience and security in the face of
fluctuating food supplies. In practice, identifying that carrying capacity will be difficult,
if not impossible, when local experience is limited and the local climate is not only
variable but still changing perhaps.
Although it can be argued that quality of life is likely to be higher when numbers are
more-or-less stable, history suggests that it is extremely unusual for human communities,
whatever their size, to avoid population growth in good times and swift decline, through
death or out-migration, in bad times. One reason is plain ignorance of population cycles.
Reasons for a community allowing or encouraging population growth include fear of
enslavement or massacre by a more-numerous enemy; or, conversely, an ambition in the
community’s own leaders for territorial expansion through military conquest. A large
population may be seen (probably wrongly) as insurance against epidemic disease. For
the individual, a large family offers some insurance against deprivation in old age.
Because optimal population size will always be context-dependent, Reconstructionists
can do no more than warn survivors of the dangers of over-estimating carrying capacity
and suggest a cautious approach to changing community numbers, whether up or down.
More concretely, Reconstructionists should perhaps give high priority to bequeathing
social and material technologies with the potential to ameliorate causes of population
growth. Three of these causes, those stemming from the problems posed by marauders,
coercive leaders and difficult neighbours, are dealt with separately below. Here, we can
recognise the value for population management of technologies for reducing unwanted
births and technologies for raising healthy-life expectancy at birth. Remember, we are
talking of informing people who will have little historical memory of today’s medical
For a number of reasons, contraception is preferable to abortion and infanticide as a tool
for population stabilisation. Unfortunately, condoms and sophisticated prophylactics
such as contraceptive pills, emergency contraceptives and spermicides will not be
available to post-bottleneck villagers. Research is needed now to locate and evaluate
(and even breed) effective herbal abortifacients. The ancient Greek colony of Cyrene at
one time had an economy based almost entirely on the production and export of
Silphium, a powerful abortifacient in the Parsley family.330 Research is similarly needed
to develop intra-uterine contraceptive devices simple enough to be made by postbottleneck villagers. It may also be possible to simplify and improve the accuracy of
fertility-awareness methods (e.g. presence of cervical mucus) of avoiding pregnancy.
Reconstructionists may also be able to suggest behavioural guidelines which, along with
more material technologies, might help survivor communities to keep their numbers
stable. For example, women are more fertile and better milkers when well fed; the old
can expect to be poorly fed when the stocking rate is too high; food rationing might
improve survival rates in bad seasons; cannibalism is an option. An appreciation of the
slow march of population dynamics would help.
Like people today, bottleneck survivors will want to lead long healthy lives. Simple
technologies for raising healthy-life expectancy at birth include awareness of preventive
behaviours such as avoiding contaminated water and washing hands with soap (which
can be made from wood ash and animal fat). If large numbers of people could be trained
to treat common illnesses and injuries (‘barefoot doctors’) before the world becomes too
disorganised, theirs would be the sort of knowledge having a reasonable chance of being
passed on till it became available to post-bottleneck villagers. As a bonus, to be able to
understand the training manuals studied by these nurses would be a powerful incentive
for people to continue learning to read. Ways of making simple medical instruments (e.g.
tweezers, needles) would need to be developed too.
The neighbour problem
Throughout pre-history, humans and their extinct near-relatives lived in small groups in
more-or-less fixed territories which they came to know well, and from which they
attempted to expel trespassers. But, as noted earlier, lethal inter-group violence and
330 (Accessed 12 Mar 2009)
dispossession was probably a common response to overpopulation and hunger caused by
runs of poor seasons.331
Under the phoenix scenario, it is easy to see how a culture of inter-group violence might
grow up in a region as bottleneck survivors struggle to choose sites for villages, manage
their group numbers and come to an understanding about boundaries with strangers in
neighbouring villages. And it would not necessarily be an advantage to have this process
of reconstruction being overlaid on a past pattern of occupied villages; not if the remnant
prior populations wanted to cling to outdated practices and old enmities.
Once started, tit-for-tat violence seems almost impossible to stop. Still, while more than
likely fruitless, it is important that Reconstructionists make a special effort to
communicate this truth to post-bottleneck villagers. There may be a place for posturing
and spear-shaking to clarify boundaries between territories but the risks of escalation
need to be made crystal clear. A culture of inter-group violence has many costs and few
benefits. Apart from the diversion of valuable resources into security operations and the
creation of a permanent climate of fear, the big danger when fighting between neighbours
becomes institutionalised is that it might trigger a push for population growth. Warring
can then become a routine activity for culling excess population! What a trap.
Relations between neighbouring villages are more likely to be cooperative and friendly
where villages are small and stocking rates low; and in frontier situations where new
villages are founded by emigrants from nearby villages. Such arrangements are also
conducive to ‘balance of power’ solutions to the problem of aggression, i.e. several of a
region’s villages can collaborate to discipline any single village which becomes
When there is a degree of trust and interaction between the villages of a region, they will
come to share a common disease pool (and hence similar immunities) and enough of a
common language to be able to communicate on trade and other matters of common
interest. Trade has the potential to improve life in many ways, allowing the acquisition
of, for example, medicinal herbs, abortifacients, pottery, cloth, jewellery, pack animals,
large and small domestic animals, seeds, minerals and scavenged metals.
History shows that intermarriage between people from neighbouring groups can promote
cooperation and alliances between those groups. When those groups are extended
families or clans, incest conventions can also serve as a technology for population
History reveals other ways in which neighbourly relationships can be improved,
including inter-village gatherings to celebrate natural events (e.g. the passage of the
seasons), song-and-dance ‘corroborees.’ feasts and sporting contests. Knowing others
LeBlanc 2003
makes them less threatening, but such social technologies take time to evolve, even under
stable conditions.
The marauder problem
The marauder problem is somewhat different from the neighbour problem. Like the
Vikings and Scottish border-peoples of history, these are mobile groups which descend
unexpectedly on sedentary peoples, take what they want by force and then depart the
region. If a village’s grain stocks, including grain reserved for planting, are stolen, the
villagers might well starve---or turn to marauding themselves. In a post-bottleneck
world, there could be hordes of displaced wanderers reduced to marauding to survive. It
is clear that, above a certain level of successful marauding, a society organised into small
villages could not survive and people would have to revert to a hunter-gatherer existence.
An alternative would be for villagers to come together for protection in urban centres.
Historically however, this ‘consolidation’ solution was only possible in special situations
where output per field worker could be increased markedly by setting up large-scale
irrigation projects, as in ancient Mesopotamia. Another solution, in situations where
modest surpluses could be consistently achieved, would be warlordism, i.e. marauders
become protectors in return for a share of each harvest.
It seems plausible that the Reconstructionist movement might judge it important to try
passing down technologies which could help aftermath villages survive marauding. Of
the many suggestions that might be considered here, we will note (a) some preparations
that rely on a high degree of cooperation between neighbouring villages, (b) some
preparations that make a village’s assets less reachable, and (c) some preparations that
increase a village’s capacity to physically resist invasion.
Provided they are not too far apart, cooperating villages could warn each other of the
presence of marauders using long-distance drums or gongs. Homing pigeons are another
possibility. Research on the re-design of such signalling devices could be undertaken
now. Agreements to come to the aid of a village being attacked are a possibility. Part of
each village’s food reserves could be stored in other villages, making it less likely that all
would be stolen in a raid. If they could be developed, such arrangements might lead, in
time, to a form of local government.
A village’s food reserves and other portable valuables will be harder to steal if they are
dispersed and hidden and protected with booby-traps (more research needed). A few
caches could be poisoned. Food reserves in the form of live animals can be dispersed
too. Hideouts for women and children and, perhaps, men can be established away from
the village.
An alternative to evasion, depending on the size of the marauding group, is physical
resistance. While Reconstructionists might want to help aftermath villagers protect
themselves, transmitting technologies for better weaponry is problematic in that most
defensive weapons can also be used offensively; and therein lies the prospect of arms
races and endless war. Still, as Neolithic villagers found, palisades and ditches are (non-
portable) structures which give defenders an advantage. It sounds strange but perhaps the
design of palisades and ditches needs researching; or, given that there will be no cannon
to bring them down, stone walls may repay the effort of constructing them.
If marauders are to be confronted, the value of dogs needs to be recognised. Not only do
they have the senses and the instinct to be brilliant natural sentries, most dogs of
reasonable size can be trained to become frightening, fearless attackers on command. In
peaceful times, aftermath villagers will learn, as their forebears did but with some help
from the Reconstructionists perhaps, how useful dogs are for hunting, carrying,
protecting livestock and crops and, indeed, for eating.
The bully problem
The primate trait of being willing to conform to emerging dominance-submission
relationships within the social group has adaptive value in terms of helping to maintain
order without constant fighting and as a technology for coordinating group activities such
as hunting, migrating and provisioning. It is a trait which perhaps co-evolved with the
capacity of the young to accept parental authority in species where learned behaviour
(culture) had become central to survival. While modern humans, primates all, are
generally willing for their beliefs and behaviour to be guided by legitimate authority, they
are less willing to submit to being frightened and coerced by bullies. For example,
democracy is a recent social technology which derives its authority from the principle
that each person has equal political power within a political unit that has a monopoly on
coercive force.
In a post-bottleneck world, where technologies for conferring legitimate authority will
have to be rebuilt, there will be space for violent bullies to emerge and claim the authority
to make collective decisions on behalf of the community. Such developments have to be
resisted because thugs generally make bad leaders. They tend to have poor impulse
control and to be socially irresponsible, imposing selfish and self-interested decisions on
the community. It is important that Reconstructionists attempt to convey this perspective
to bottleneck survivors.
History shows that, once in control, sociopathic leaders are difficult to dislodge. They
tend to form a pseudospecies around themselves by making decisions which favour an
elite few (e.g. access to food) and by restricting access to weaponry.
There are various social technologies which, where they have become customary, help
protect against the rise of coercive self-serving leaders. Thus, in many tribal societies,
collective actions are agreed by reaching a consensus or agreed by tribal elders. Or,
rather than a single leader, it might be customary for a duo or triumvirate of leaders to be
selected by consensus (or by lot) and allowed to lead for a fixed period. The 'invisible
hand' principle suggests the importance of harnessing self-interest to the pursuit of the
public interest, e.g, leaders who are acclaimed as having served the public interest well
might be invited to lead for a further period. These traditions have been traced back as
far as Mesopotamian city-states c. 2500 BCE.332
It is important that the powers of leaders be circumscribed in clearly defined ways.
While hereditary leadership offers social stability at times of succession, the risks of
getting a mad, bad or incompetent heir make this an unacceptable social technology. The
group must be willing to kill or exile a bad leader or one who stays too long. Apart from
an understanding of what leaders can decide, it is equally important for the powers of
others in the group to be agreed, e.g. who is to predict the weather. In this way, doubts
as to where a particular responsibility lies can be minimised. Leadership is an effective
social technology in many situations (e.g. simplifying communication and negotiation)
and should not be abandoned just because it is so often abused.
Now is the time to do more research on the bullying personality. Are bullies treating
people as they were once treated? Do leaders who are bullies inspire more confidence
than others in times of conflict? Perhaps something of use to aftermath villagers can be
discovered and bequeathed, along with what is already known.
The identity problem
Many post-bottleneck villages are likely to contain ad hoc assemblages of traumatised
refugees with little sense of history of family, or the pre-bottleneck world or the human
lineage. Without such knowledge, it is hard for people to acquire a strong sense of
identity, meaning a feeling of belonging to various entities larger than oneself, such as
one’s family, village, region, species or, for some, the biosphere or the universe. Apart
from each individual’s psychic need for identity, villagers with a common or shared sense
of identity will be able to more readily trust, communicate, collaborate and compromise
with each other. It is obviously important for post-bottleneck villagers to understand the
value of shared identity and hence for Reconstructionists to develop and transmit
understanding of how shared identity can be fostered, e.g. through story-telling or simply
through shared experience.
One can imagine that, within a few generations of ‘the great breakdown,’ people will
have only a hazy idea of the history of the great cities that, for them, exist only as ruins to
be mined for useful materials which are no longer being produced. If, as suggested
above, the survivors can, with the help of the Reconstructionists, have access to a
technological history of the species, it might help them understand something of what
worked and what failed for their ancestors, and hence might improve their own choices.
Rationality is a delicate plant and it is important that aftermath villagers do not revert to
‘pre-critical’ thinking.
Bermant C, and Weitzman M, 1979, Ebla: A Revelation in Archaeology, Times Books,
New York.
It would not be possible, even for well-resourced Reconstructionists, to prepare and
transmit a history of every local area which could become a site for a post-bottleneck
village. What then might they be able to do to help post-bottleneck people to identify
strongly with their local territories and communities? Not much probably, but one
possibility would be to encourage localism and communitarian values at the expense of
liberal values amongst today’s rural communities. The hope here would be that these
values might survive through any future social disorganisation. Localism (also called
regionalism, bio-regionalism) is the movement to have more of people’s needs, economic
and social, satisfied within a local area (up to, say, half a day’s travel) which, politically,
enjoys significant autonomy under the nation-state. The bio-regional variant of localism
looks for self-sufficiency for the residents of a bio-physically defined area such as a river
catchment. Authority needs to be set in place now for future villages to assume
emergency powers should higher levels of governance disappear.
A more concrete idea for creating a lasting sense of place would be to delineate today’s
local government boundaries with permanent markers and take the children out to ‘beat
the bounds.’ Maps may well become rare, so knowing your territory’s former place name
and shape might be useful when negotiating boundaries with neighbours.
Humans tend to think in terms of binary divisions. But aftermath villagers must avoid
identifying their communities by negation, i.e. by focussing on differences between
‘them’ and ‘us.’ This way lies prejiduce, fear and, often, violence; shared enmity
encourages a form of bonding that is ulltimately self-defeating.
Identity through negation stands to be problem within communities as well as between
communities. If and when village societies start to become more hierarchical, with a
ruling pseudospecies and a labouring pseudospecies, differences between pseudospecies
are more likely to be recognised than commonalities. Traditionally, ruling pseudospecies
have developed a range of social technologies for suppressing the potential for conflict
here. These include physical coercion, food rationing and the propagation of religious
ideas which convince the underclasses to accept their lot in life. Such technologies work
only up to a point before revolt emerges. The question for Reconstructionists is whether
they can help aftermath villagers understand the importance of minimising differences
between pseudospecies.
Technology issues
Darker versions of the reference scenario imagine a world of primitive subsistence
villages where the elaborate manufactures and services (including electronic
communications and motorised haulage) and food markets of today’s urban industrial
civilisation are no longer available. More than this, even in a world which has been
disorganised for just several generations, it is likely that many of the skills which might
have helped survivors to improve their quality of life will have been lost; along with
physical capital such as buildings, tools, drainage systems and fences; and those inputs
which are themselves made from the end products of various long chains of
manufacturing processes (wood screws provide a simple example).
In a post-bottleneck world it will take time and luck to reconstruct village communities
which have the material, social, communicative and cognitive technologies to survive the
‘normal’ range of threats to be expected from nature and various fellow humans. This is
because complex technologies have to be built up from simpler technologies which are
already established. You can't weave before you can spin, so to speak. The best that
today’s Reconstructionists can hope for is to speed up the rate at which some simple
ideas, recipes and artefacts are ‘discovered’ by bottleneck survivors. There is no point in
trying to transmit elaborate technologies through a time of rapid technological
Even as they learn to master village life, survivors will need to keep devising and
modifying technologies for better dealing with changing conditions, if they are not to
become increasingly vulnerable to disturbances. Apart from attempting to transmit
various selected technologies, it might be just as important for any phoenix project to
project and reinforce the optimistic perspective that humans have a long unbroken history
of inventing new and improving old technologies.333
Equally, and it cannot be known in advance, survivors might benefit from being warned
that most promising new technologies have a latent ‘biteback’ or ‘fishhook’ potential if
adopted too enthusiastically, i.e, after a lag period, they come to be seen as having caused
new problems. The outstanding examples are better weapons, rapid population growth,
and task specialisation leading to privilege. Recognising such technology traps may not
be sufficient reason for not entering them of course.334
A technology which reduce inputs (e.g. a better plough) rather than increases outputs has
several advantages. While saved resources (e.g. work hours) can be used to increase
output, they may be better used to increase leisure time or to implement public works
such as improved defences; or to improve social cohesion through group activities such
as festivals. It is particularly important that time be found for educating the young in
reading and writing, wherever these communicative technologies have survived.
History suggests that mutually beneficial trade is commonplace between the simplest of
societies. Equally, post-bottleneck communities should probably be seeking technologies
that produce tradeable goods. Apart from its direct benefits, trade can bring new ideas,
an understanding of the outside world and improved relations with neighbouring
communities. It is important however for communities to avoid becoming too specialised
in the production of a few goods; outlets can disappear and specialisation often leads to
Childe Man makes himself
Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. W.
Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row.
Shouting down the time tunnel
Trying to transmit a message to one’s great grandchildren has all the uncertainties of
shouting down a metaphorical ‘time tunnel.’ One has to decide what to shout about and
how to shout it; and then wondering Will anyone hear it? Will they listen? Will they
understand it? Will they find it useful? Being a one-way tunnel, they can't shout back
and tell you.
The Phoenix strategy can be thought of as having several prongs. One is to invest at once
in the targeted development of new social and material technologies, which, if they
survive the bottleneck tumult, promise to prove useful to post-bottleneck villagers.
Another is to make contingency plans for ‘mothballing’ a small number of ‘heritage’ sites
which incorporate vast amounts of concentrated information, especially the great libraries
and museums. Remembering the fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria and, more
recently, the Baghdad Museum, such entities have to be recognised as vulnerable to
social unrest. The third prong, as discussed above, involves collating a body of
contemporary insights and procedural information and seeking to actively transmit this
aggregate across a period of massive social disorganisation into the hands of postbottleneck peoples. The thinking here parallels sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s idea for an
Encyclopedia Galactica, a vast compilation of the knowledge of a dying galactic empire;
or Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.335 Here, we consider some
obstacles to and ideas for successfully transmitting an Earth-bound Collation.
One obvious principle is to use a diversity and redundancy of channels to deliver a
Collation to as many post-bottleneck village-sites as possible. Electronic media will be
unsuitable because they do not store well and become increasingly difficult to read. More
to the point, the infrastructure which carries today’s Internet (computers, servers,
transmitters, fibres etc) will have been irreparably degraded by then. And, like other
machinery from the industrial age, electricity generators will have disappeared.
What about books? Yes, the Reconstructionists’ Collation can be thought of as a library
of a few hundred books, manuals etc.. But they will have to be special books in a number
of ways. Physically, they will need to be printed on some durable, fire-resistant medium
(aluminium?), cheap enough to produce millions of copies in a number of contemporary
languages. Their fonts will have to be large to allow reading by candlelight. In terms of
presentation, they will presumably have to be written as though for people with a basic
800-word vocabulary and, like children’s books, with lots of pictures. Also, they will
have to be written as though for people with limited cognitive skills with respect to
causation, induction, deduction, abduction etc.. It is well-known that, without practice,
people tend to forget how to read and it probably has to be assumed that people who have
been living precariously for several generations will also have trouble in making longerterm plans and investments when conditions begin to stabilise.
Foundation, Gnome press, 1951, Adams , d Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Much imagination will be needed to create a distribution system which has any prospect
of reliably delivering Collations to post-bottleneck villages. How can each village’s
‘library’ be protected from pilfering and wanton destruction until it needs to be accessed?
Most suggestions have obvious flaws. One possibility is to house each village’s collation
in one or several shipping containers. But should these be padlocked or left open to be
protected by local people? Would their contents be attractive to marauders? Should
each village have multiple libraries? And so on. Perhaps each shipping container’s walls
could be covered, inside and out, with useful permanent inscriptions---like Hammurabi’s
Bronze Age steles which proclaimed the law for all to see.
Religious communities played an important role in keeping the flame of learning alive
through the European dark ages. Might it be possible for the Phoenix project to
encourage the establishment of ongoing communities of secular religious committed to,
first, surviving the bottleneck and, second, mastering and passing on the Collation? For
example, a contemporary group whose members might have perspectives and ideals
suited to such a mission is the deep ecology movement founded by Arne Naess.336
Simple agrarian societies are ecologically benign. And, continuing this high speculation,
as more-orderly agrarian societies emerge from the bottleneck, these ‘secular monks’
could leave their ‘monasteries’ and become wandering story-tellers and teachers, helping
villages make use of their inherited Collations. Plus ça change…
This chapter is organised around a dystopic scenario, an imagined future in which, worldwide, quality of life drops sharply over the next few decades. People in both rich and
poor countries will find it much harder to satisfy their everyday needs and to remain
functional. Unthinkably large numbers will die from hunger, violence and disease. At the
collective scale, nation-states will see the abandonment of cities, the disappearance of
many industries and institutions and currency failures. It is argued that such a scenario is
a plausible expression of ongoing cumulative change in four highly-consequential
attributes of the human ecosystem---people numbers, stocks of natural resources, mean
global temperature and the interconnectedness of the global economy. History certainly
shows that human societies change markedly when any of these ‘control parameters’
shift. In a situation I have described as Overshoot, these four attributes have now,
putatively, reached threshold levels, i.e. levels beyond which the global human ecosystem
can only continue to function as a complex dynamic system if it spontaneously selfreorganises into a structure which is better-adapted to these recently changed attribute
It is because self-reorganisation is inherently unpredictable in speed, scope, onset etc. that
different people can, quite legitimately, have quite different beliefs as to whether and how
Fox, Warwick (1990). Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for
Environmentalism. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications.Naess
this reference scenario might eventuate; and different ideas as to what the collective’s
response to such a scenario should be. The chapter suggests that, among those concerned
for the well-being of the world’s people, it will be common to find tough-minded waitand-see Empiricists and tender-minded Interventionists. The former have open minds as
to when and how disorganisation might set in and spread but are willing to see generous
aid offered to victim groups when it is clear that their quality of life is in decline.
However, they have little interest or confidence in efforts to manage the juggernaut
processes (resource depletion, population growth, global warming , economic
complexification) lying behind declining quality of life.
Those I have labelled as (immediate) Interventionists are convinced that, if nothing is
done, the reference scenario could very well come to pass. But, they also believe that, if
there is strong coordinated intervention to manage the juggernaut processes and their
impacts, average quality of life will decline but slowly for a generation or so and then
begin to monotonically improve again. This is the idea that a ‘soft landing’ is possible.
As presented here, what is remarkable about the advocates of both these widespread
attitudes, perhaps more so for the Interventionists because they are more ambitious, is
that they are not overawed by either the pseudospecies problem or the what-to-do
problem In claiming to have a realistic perception of the reference scenario and how to
best respond to it, they are equally claiming to have a reasonable working knowledge of
the what-to-do options that are available, and their consequences, and whether or not the
cooperation and co-ordination each option calls for can be achieved.
In addition to the Interventionist (Stop fiddling) and reactive (Don’t panic) responses, the
chapter elaborates a third possible response to the reference scenario, that of the
Reconstructionist or Preparationist. Here, the radical perception is that the reference
scenario, or something much more dystopic, is not only totally plausible but largely
unstoppable. That is, humanity needs to look to the future on the assumption that quality
of life will plunge everywhere in coming decades, but most painfully in communities
where there is a high dependence on trade and elaborate manufactures, where population
density is high and where food and water are already scarce and further threatened by
global warming. The Reconstructionists take this new dark age as given and ask what
can be done now to help the village-scale communities that will be forming and looking
for security and improved quality of life once the uncertainties of the bottleneck period
begin to pass, in two or three generations perhaps.
As with the Interventionist and reactive responses, but probably more so, the ineluctable
realities of the pseudospecies problem and the what-to-do problem would make it very
difficult for contemporary Reconstructionists to create and successfully deliver a
genuinely useful inheritance to our post-bottleneck descendants. That is, an inheritance
that would help them rebuild the technology mix and quality of life more quickly, while
avoiding the reintroduction of some of the maladaptive technologies (behaviours) which
have helped to create the present Overshoot crisis.
Unfortunately, these descendants have no voice in today’s world and diverting resources
towards their interests in the face of today’s pressing needs seems unlikely. Nor can one
imagine players in today’s political processes admitting that their working hypothesis is
to assume an approaching massive breakdown of global society. So, as with the
Interventionist and reactive strategies for responding to Overshoot, the Reconstructionist
strategy is unlikely to evoke significant collective action.
A broader context
There are various other responses to the reference scenario which this chapter could have
explored, but those selected, based on differences in respondent temperament, probably
constitute a reasonable sample of the possibilities. Responses based on ideology,
superstition or despairing nihilism were deemed unlikely to lead to productive discussion.
Similarly, I could have selected a different reference scenario, one in which the speed and
extent of breakdown in global society were either more or less than in the chosen
scenario; or a scenario squeezed out of a different set of global-scale processes.
Notwithstanding these matters of judgement, I will take my perception of the attitudes
and responses outlined as a starting point for putting the Overshoot crisis, and people’s
conceivable responses to it, into a broader context.
Despite the observably relentless progression of momentous juggernaut processes which
appear to be more threatening than opportune, we will not know if we are now entering
the early stages of a major discontinuity in the organisation of planetary society until
hindsight allows us to look back at what happened, particularly what happened to average
quality of daily life. If the Reconstructionists are making the right assumption, we have
indeed entered a major discontinuity, but if the Interventionists’ working assumptions are
right, the global community will be willing and able to avert what would otherwise be
such a breakdown. This would leave the global community free to resume building a
more sustainable civilisation. So, unlike the tough-minded Empiricists, both groups of
tender-minded Rationalists, the Interventionists and the Reconstructionists, agree that
global society is approaching a major discontinuity; they disagree as to whether it can be
Some Reconstructionists might further disagree as to whether it ‘should’ be averted, i.e.
should a potential discontinuity, a sharp drop in average quality of life, be converted into
a gentler transition to a post-overshoot world? Or, should global society be allowed to go
through a harsh bottleneck so that global society can be ‘born again’? If there really were
such a choice, history suggests that it would be unwise to presume that permitting or
encouraging a sharp drop in quality of life in order to allow a more progressive
replacement society to emerge would probably be a mistake. How many successful
revolutions against oppression have quickly led to renewed oppression? In similar vein,
starting from the assumption that average quality of life is about to drop sharply, it is a
knowledge of history which suggests that Reconstructionists’ attempts to help postbottleneck villagers should focus, not on improving their quality of life per se, but on
helping them to avoid being brought down by various perennial threats.337 More
generally, it might be observed that the real tragedy of the Overshoot crisis is that it has
already redirected the global community’s attention from the challenge to steadily
improve quality of life for most people to the challenge of preventing a decline in average
quality of life from present levels. People of goodwill are asking How much will quality
of life decline in coming decades? They are not asking How much will it improve?
If the Reconstructionists’ working hypothesis is correct, global society is entering a
period of reorganisation at least as far-reaching as any associated with past periods of
major reorganisation, including the flowering and transformation and disappearance of
civilisations; and reorganisations triggered by climate shifts, natural disasters, shifts in
cognition-consciousness and the emergence of transformative social and material
One thing that stands to be different about this 21st-century bifurcation, if it is that, is that
it could engulf the whole world, something not experienced since the global warming at
the end of the last ice age. Even the few remnant hunter-gatherer societies could be
disrupted by climate change. More than this, apart from the sheer numbers standing to be
killed or dispossessed, disruption could spread very quickly because of the density of
high-energy links---economic, political, social, environmental---between large and small
regions everywhere. When disruptions are being initiated in a variety of ways (through
resource depletion, global warming, population shifts, economic linkages…) at multiple
locations across the Ecumene, the potential for inter- and intra-regional domino effects,
positive feedbacks, chain reactions, oscillations, destructuring etc is enormous. Breaking
a link which carries or just directs (e.g. capital movements) a large energy flow is
necessarily highly disruptive. Historically, endogenous and localised disruptions were
more-or-less self-limiting in a world of loosely-connected regions; and, when it was a
single region being disrupted, surrounding regions, being still organised, could both
absorb the spill-over effects and initiate reorganisation in the disorganised region, e.g the
absorption of failed states by neighbouring states.
While the current Overshoot Crisis has the potential to be the most disruptive of the
Holocene epoch, it pales beside various geophysical perturbations which scientists have
flagged as plausible possibilities for the distant future. As discussed in my earlier book,
Deep Futures, these include ‘permanent total drought’ in about 900 million years, large
differences between daytime and night-time temperatures, and the extinction of the Sun
in 5-7 billion years.338 Also, once we begin thinking about futures measured in millions
rather than thousands of years, scenarios such as volcanic winters, asteroid strikes and the
B.Fagan 2008 The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of
Civilisations Fagan argues that village-based societies have, historically, been
particularly resilient in face of climate and other change.
Deep Futures chapter 2
loss of the geomagnetic field become plausible possibilities as distinct from possibilities
which would be highly surprising if they occurred in the next millennium. Based on
today’s knowledge, it is reasonable to assume that the human species, or a successor
species, will be snuffed out at some time in the far future. We emerged from stardust and
to stardust we will return.
In the nearer future, much less threateningly, the species will have the next ice age to
contend with. Already, at 11-12 thousand years, ours is the longest inter-glacial on
record and, well within a thousand years, we could be plunged into a world where, as in
the last ice age, average temperatures are up to 10 degrees lower than today (although the
cooling process commonly has taken much longer). Current greenhouse warming could
delay this somewhat but is unlikely to permanently stall a process which, driven by
recurring variations in the earth’s orbit, axial tilt and axial wobble, has operated with a
basic regularity for a million years. In that cold, perhaps CO2-deficient, dry, windy
world, wheat could not be produced in the breadbaskets of Ukraine, North America and
Australia and, in the absence of revolutionary technology, world population would
plummet, if it had not plummeted already.
What will happen? Piecemeal intervention?
What has been achieved by having this discussion of various ways of reacting to a
dystopic reference scenario? Are we any closer to knowing what will happen to global
society over coming decades? The answer of course is No, once it is accepted that the
global human ecosystem is a dissipative system which has been continually reorganising
because it has been capturing energy at an increasing rate.
On the other hand, the possibilities as to what could happen or could not happen to the
human ecosystem may be a little clearer, albeit wide-ranging. Thus, it seems highly
unlikely that any of the three strategies suggested in the Chapter on behalf of Empiricists,
Interventionists and Reconstructionists respectively will be adopted explicitly by the
global community. Reconstructionists in particular would find it difficult to convince
people or governments, who would prefer to not be convinced, that the reference scenario
is plausible to the point where the species should act as though it will eventuate.
Empiricists run the risk of being labelled ‘just sceptics’ and of being captured by those
beneficiaries of the status quo who are advocating inaction in their own short-term
On the other hand, the Interventionist position is likely to get a degree of support, but in a
piecemeal way. That is, as early warning signs of particular threats to the quality of
ordinary lives or the functionality of states appear in particular locations, those who stand
to be directly affected will promote precautionary efforts to adapt to or mitigate the
foreseen harm. Indeed, in a variety of ways this is already happening, from Kyoto to
kerbside recycling, from bank bailouts to wind farms. A few of these efforts stand to be
global in scope, tackling the juggernauts directly, but most will be national, regional,
local or personal. Poor and failing states though will not have the resources to protect
themselves or their people from Overshoot’s shocks; and international assistance to such
will be very limited.
But, to repeat, there is little chance of the Overshoot Crisis being tackled
comprehensively. The understanding being suggested here is that the evolution of the
global human ecosystem, and quality of life for many, are already being noticeably
influenced by a process of Piecemeal Intervention in an Overshoot Crisis of
unpredictable speed, size and duration. Like other wicked problems, the Overshoot Crisis
is exhibiting itself as an evolving set of interlocking issues, constraints, objectives and
options for action. Ends and means overlap. There are multiple protagonists, what I call
pseudospecies, and each will takes various actions, each of which is intended to be a
partial solution, i.e. to improve some aspect of the total problem.
Faced with this emerging unscripted interplay between juggernaut trends and a patchwork
of pseudospecies’ responses, it takes little to imagine that a sharp shift in community
psychology, in social character, is also taking place. Recall that a society’s social
character is to be seen in the way that most people internalise, accept and support the
cultural values implicit in their society’s social and economic systems. But history shows
that a society’s social character can change quickly once it is commonly perceived that its
socio-economic system is failing to deliver the values it professes to foster. As and if a
failing socio-economic system is replaced by one seen as more progressive, so will the
previous social character be replaced by one supportive of the incoming system. More
precisely, this replacement process is co-evolutionary in that change in either social
character or the production system will induce further change in the other; social
character both leads and follows social change. For example, Leonard Woolf’s After the
Deluge is largely concerned with the way in which, in 19th century Europe, the idea and
practice of democracy replaced an unquestioned acceptance of inherited privilege as
society’s main organising principle.339
So, what is happening to social character now in, for example, First World countries? As
noted in Chapter 4, support for the values and ideas underpinning economism and neoliberalism has declined in recent decades, in line with the perception that the economic
growth which these beliefs have fostered (at least until very recently) has failed to deliver
increased prosperity and improved quality of life for the many. While there is no clearly
apparent successor to either the capitalist system of production-consumption, or a
besieged belief system, there is evidence of both being ‘reformed.’ Thus, the recent
spread of ‘interventionist’ social-democrat governments in place of neo-liberal
governments is best interpreted as a movement to reform, but not to replace, the dominant
paradigm. That is, markets are still being seen as the core institutions of Western postmodern societies, but intervention to ‘correct’ widely-acknowledged widespread market
failures has acquired a renewed legitimacy.
Woolf, L (1931/1937) After the Deluge: A Study of Community Psychology, Pelican,
Much of that legitimacy rests on a growing approval within the community for the idea
that Sustainable Development is an appropriate umbrella goal for the global human
ecosystem. Building on the environmental movement that began in the 1960s,
Sustainable Development is based on the proposition that all of the global community’s
projects can and should meet standards for environmental protection, economic
development and social development in a balanced way.340 Just as neo-liberalism was
waiting in the wings to replace Keynesianism in the 1970s, Sustainable Development, has
been emerging as the strongest aspirant to displace neo-liberalism as the centrepiece of
First World social character. Support for this transition seems to have accelerated as the
growing perception that there is a global Overshoot Crisis has joined the perception that
economic growth alone did not and cannot provide high quality of life to most people. In
this vein, Piecemeal Intervention, with its emphasis on managed markets as primary
instruments for responding to Overshoot, presents as a canonical example of the
Sustainable Development philosophy.
Presumably, if this chapter’s dystopic reference scenario does eventuate in the next few
decades, the ideas of both Sustainable Development and neo-liberalism as grand
organising principles will be consigned to the dustbin of history. People will then
develop a new social character consonant with the society in which they find themselves.
For example, if urban societies revert to a village-based mode of social organisation, one
would be unsurprised by the emergence of a social character which is appreciative of the
qualities of village life and supportive of customary approaches to addressing the
problems that villages encounter.
Very sobering
To conclude, this is a very sobering chapter. It is suggesting that, while humans will
survive their human-made Overshoot Crisis, it won’t be because of any remarkable
capacity to adapt to major challenges in ways that protect quality of life. It will be
because the Crisis wasn’t as bad as some thought it could have been; that is, the species
was not really tested. Or, it will be that while the crisis was highly destructive of quality
of life for most, it spat out a post-bottleneck population which, scattered and muchreduced, retained sufficient social and material technologies to begin rebuilding stable
sedentary societies and improving quality of life once again. Nor does our analysis find
any global collective will to consciously avert extended crises or to work systematically
towards achieving high quality of life for most people into the indefinite future.
So, it has to be asked, if this is cultural evolution in action, is it a dead-end process,
limping along until a somewhat bigger shock than the present crisis drives the species to
extinction? For example, global warming during the Permian extinction produced
sufficient deadly hydrogen sulphide gas to kill off 50 percent of animal families and 95
Sustainable development ref
percent of marine species.341 This is a largely unrecognised possibility which could
happen again if, in a warmer world, the oceans’ heat-transferring currents stop flowing.
For those hoping for a human ecosystem where prospects for long-term quality survival
will continue to improve---call them ecohumanists---a better question to ask is whether
cultural evolution is producing social, cognitive, communicative and material
technologies which, other things being equal, could help this to happen. Growing out of
our ever-increasing ability to conceptualise the world and its component processes, we
have acquired a profusion of technologies, but no accompanying sense that prospects for
quality survival are thereby improving. It may be that the quality survival challenge is
not recognised as important by enough people, or is actively opposed by too many people
or is just too difficult under present levels of cognitive skills and scientific knowledge,
e.g. our limited understanding of the dynamics of complex systems; our inability to solve
the pseudospecies problem.
If ecohumanists want to convince enough people to believe in and progress the idea that
quality survival is humanity’s primary goal, they have to explain the world view---system
of fundamental beliefs---which leads them towards this conclusion.342 Thus, a great
many ecohumanists view the world, including the human ecosystem, in terms of
evolutionary and ecological processes, and find this to be a philosophy, a model of
reality, which gives them a sense of meaning (What’s been happening? Why are things
the way they are and not otherwise?) and a sense of belonging---to the universe, the
world and the human family. It is the feeling that all people, present and future, are one’s
‘brothers and sisters’ or, at least, one’s ‘neighbours’, that brings one to regard quality
survival as a matter of ultimate importance. It is the ecohumanists’ belief that feelings of
loyalty to and solidarity with the ‘other’ blur differences between pseudospecies, foster
cooperation and refocus the search for new technologies away from market reform and
towards quality survival.
When a dominant world view emerges in a society it provides a set of constraints and
guidelines within which both social character and social organisation will evolve, i.e.
both will continue to change, but in ways which are not incompatible with the
overarching world view. Because world views usually change much more slowly than
social character and social organisation (centuries versus decades often), they are, most of
the time, like a medium within which social evolution takes place. For example, if a
world view inclines people to believe that humanity has been just plain lucky to have
Peter Ward ref
World views:From Fragmentation to Integration (1994/2007) Diederik Aerts, Leo
Apostel, Bart De Moor, Staf Hellemans, Edel Maex, Hubert Van Belle, Jan Van der
Veken. Originally published by VUB Press, Brussels, Internet edition 2007,
survived both large natural events and its own selfish, short-sighted behaviours, it may
also incline them to behave with more concern for others and more presbyopically.
Unlike traditional societies where a single world view is the norm, today’s connected
world is one where alternative world views---religious, scientific, political, economic,
psychological etc.---struggle for dominance, in the sense of each having their advocates,
e.g. Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations,’ CP Snow’s ‘two cultures.’343 What
then is the likelihood that a world view based on a scientific understanding of reality will
become widespread? And what are the shortcomings of such a perspective? Perhaps
there are other world views which also constitute belief-environments where quality
survival is readily seen as being humanity’s paramount goal? Where concern for people
everywhere is highly valued?
This then is where our project to understand the origins, nature and possible trajectory of
the Global Overshoot Crisis has finally led us, namely, to a conclusion that the ways in
which societies respond to existential opportunities and problems are broadly determined
(macro-determined) by the world view or views prevalent in the society. This is a simple
but important conclusion which, in the next and final chapter, to round out our analysis,
we need to look at more critically.
We need to ask how contemporary world views might be compatible with a Crisisresponse scenario of piecemeal intervention to reform failing markets. We also need to
discuss several more general aspects of the world-view concept, including: What sorts of
world views are associated with adaptability under change? What happens to societies in
which there is no dominant world view? How can a world view be best promoted? And,
most importantly, when do world views engender hope and enthusiasm and when,
conversely, despair and resignation?
Storytelling is an old, old social technology with the potential to serve a variety of
practical functions, especially in oral cultures. For present purposes, the term stories is a
catchall for the myths, sagas, epics, fables, legends, plays, folktales, folk histories etc
which members of religious, ethnic, political, tribal etc. pseudospecies tell and retell
amongst themselves. Apart from being entertainment, allowing the listener to enjoy
vicarious adventures etc., stories are a powerful socialisation and communicative
technology which can mould and reinforce customs, belief systems, values and attitudes.
Huntington, snow
For example, the Mahābhārata is a Hindu epic, the tale of a great dynasty, which
supports a discussion of human goals (purpose, pleasure, duty and liberation) in relation
to traditional understandings of the relationship of the individual to society and the world,
including the nature of the “Self” and the consequential nature of one’s actions.344 For
individuals, stories can help satisfy their ever-present needs for a sense of meaning (e.g.
understanding the past) and a sense of belonging to a group with a strong identity. In
particular, religious stories, to the extent that they are believed, can console the grieving
individual, allay her fear of death and help her endure great misfortune.
Cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell is well-known for his thesis that many
important myths from around the world, some having survived for thousands of years,
share, in part or whole, a common structure. He summarizes same in a well-known quote
from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from
the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there
encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious
adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”345 Examples include
Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Odysseus.
Another helpful perspective on how stories are useful is that of Karl Kroeber in his book
Native American Storytelling:346 “Storytelling was a recognised way of ‘debating’
solutions to practical personal, social and political contemporary problems” (p2). Some
stories were told for amusement and relaxation but most were active applications of
historical tribal experience to specific current issues, individual and communal. Among
others, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has recognised that myths invariably
introduce conflicting ideas about how the world works or should work and then show
how “thesis” and “anti-thesis” can be synthesised or reconciled.347 Thus, taking this book
as an example, could my three different ways of reacting to an overshoot scenario be
reconciled or synthesised?
Stories abound in contemporary society too. Some, survivors from the distant past, are
still important for specific communities, particularly those stories which have survived as
sacred religious texts. Because the stories in these texts cannot evolve, they can only
remain relevant to contemporary communities by being continually re-interpreted.
Alternatively, communities that believe in such a text attempt to hold on to the culture
and social organisation which existed when their stories were young.
The bulk of “new” stories are fictitious; they involve imaginary characters working
through a plot-line of relationships and events, and are widely available through the
media of film, television, radio, theatre and print. Most fiction is created for
Wikipedia Accessed July 20 2009
Wikipedia Accessed July 20 2009
346 Karl Kroeber Native American Storytelling: A Reader of Myths and Legends, Blackwell
Oxfors 2004.
347 Lévi Strauss The Savage Mind
entertainment but, when vividly presented, exposes people to experiences they can learn
from and ideas they can use to expand their own behavioural options, e.g. by challenging
or confirming conventional wisdoms, or by providing memes and role models.
Newspapers and electronic news media present the public with large numbers of “nonfiction” stories every day. These provide people with a selective sense of what is
happening and mould public opinion, sociality and social character as people exchange
their responses to these widely shared experiences. While a majority of news stories are
transient, many present as chapters in ongoing narratives; the state of the economy and
progress in sporting competitions are examples here.
As discussed earlier, we live in a world where propagandists from one pseudospecies
routinely distort non-fiction stories in order to persuade (cf. convince) other
pseudospecies to come to beliefs and values which covertly advantage the propagandists.
Governments which deliberately “revise” history provide many examples---Stalin’s and
now Putin’s Russia; Hitler’s Germany; Japan’s sanitised version of its atrocities in the
Second World War Such rewritten histories find scapegoats and excuses for past failures
or inspire populations to believe their forebears were great, creators of glories and
triumphs, but never ignoble.
There may be circumstances in which the deliberate corruption of history can be justified--to motivate a shattered people perhaps---but people will react angrily and become
indelibly suspicious when they eventually conclude they have been deceived. Or, if they
continue to be deluded, they may well adopt dangerously unrealistic goals. A
complication here is that corruption is not always a black and white matter. Even honest
history has to be periodically rewritten to match contemporary understandings and to
incorporate new data. With the best of intentions, historians may not be fully aware of
their own world views, their unrecognised prejudices and assumptions; unconscious
racism provides a good example. Or, quite genuinely, they may not regard their
prejudices as prejudices.
And then there are “true” stories, told by people who want to create meaning and
understanding by linking available pieces of information together in a plausible, coherent
way. Amongst others, scientists or, more generally, scholars, aspire to tell (provisionally)
true stories; plate tectonics and evolution through natural selection are powerful
This book is a story of course, albeit not one with a hero in Campbell’s sense. It is a
‘rock-hopping’ story of how evolutionary and ecological processes have led, step by
plausible step, from the early universe to a Global Overshoot Crisis which now threatens
to massively reduce humans’ average quality of life. At this point the Story of Global
Overshoot, to give it a name, moves to discussing just how threatening the Crisis is
perceived to be by people of different temperaments, how world society might respond
and what might actually happen to quality of life. It recognises that some see no Crisis,
that some see a Crisis that can and will be averted, and some a Crisis that will
unstoppably turn into a disastrous bottleneck for humanity. My tentative conclusion is
that reductions in quality of life over coming decades, whether they are to be large or
small, are already determined and unlikely to be greatly altered by human intervention.
Why am I telling such an uninspiring story? It offers no solution to the Overshoot Crisis,
no vision of steady improvement in average quality of life for the world’s people.
Notwithstanding, the story is offered as a useful response to perceptions of an Overshoot
Crisis. This chapter recapitulates and reviews that claim.
Descriptive and prescriptive philosophies
Is it too grand to call my story a philosophy? Is it anything more than a “philosophy” in
the everyday sense of that word?348 Its starting point is certainly an acceptance of the
central idea of process philosophy, the assertion that reality is best understood by seeing
it as a process of continuous change driven by the spontaneous dissipation of energy
gradients set up when the universe began. It is a story which might equally have been
called Nothing is at rest, a linked chain of questions and answers about how and why
things have been changing; and what might have caused them to change otherwise. Each
step in the evolutionary chain sees the creation of a more-or-less stable ‘platform,’
composed of material and energy flows diverted out of those already in existence. Each
new platform then functions as an environment in which, for the first time, certain
conditions necessary for the emergence and persistence of the next link (platform) in the
evolutionary chain are satisfied. It’s platforms all the way up! This perspective is a
descriptive philosophy in the sense that it is a quite general approach to understanding the
Crisis---its origins, its present character and its possible future.
It is also quite abstract. For the story to have everyday meaning, it has to be told in terms
of a mutually compatible (coherent) set of concepts, a world view or belief system,which
allows successive platforms to be described in terms of their own peculiarities. Thus,
separate vocabularies are needed to describe and understand evolutionary change in, for
example, the radiation era, the chemical era, the biological era and the cultural era. This
book is based on, and intended to demonstrate, the naturalistic belief that, in general, the
set of concepts provided by contemporary science and the humanities is a sufficient world
view to allow the story of the Overshoot Crisis to be developed in a way that is both
plausible and consistent with a core philosophy of understanding reality as a process of
continuous change.
As told here, the story of the Overshoot Crisis is also an exercise in moral philosophy.
Thus, it prescriptively (normatively) proposes that quality survival, the achievement of
high quality of life for most people into the indefinite future, be treated as global
Wilson, J (1966) Thinking with Concepts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Chapter 3
society’s overarching goal. From this moral standpoint, the Overshoot Crisis is only a
crisis because it carries a threat to average quality of life. It is only by embracing some
such goal that alternative what-to-do proposals can be compared for expected
effectiveness; or, likewise, that one can compare the expected impact of alternative Crisis
trajectories. How do you know which bus to catch if you don’t know where you are
Despite its fuzziness, I find the humanist goal of quality survival, perhaps more easily
recognisable as humanitarianism or cosmopolitanism,349 a more fundamental anchor
point for thinking about the impact and management of the Overshoot Crisis than more
conventional but instrumental alternatives such as economic growth, sustainable
development or religious conformity; it is all too easy to confuse ends and means.
Notwithstanding my own conviction, there is a broader injunction here---global society
must recognise that goals are chosen, not revealed, and that they must never be closed to
debate and revision. Apart from the adaptive value of this directive, humanity’s image of
itself needs to include the perception of a species which, in an ever-changing world, is
willing and able to keep questioning fundamental beliefs. For example, as noted earlier, it
might suffice to judge a person’s quality of life in terms of their success in satisfying
Maslow’s hierarchy of physiological and psychological needs350 or it might be time to
(say) reconceptualise his concept of self-actualisation.
I have been advancing the idea that even if global overshoot were about to become
widely recognised as a massive threat to average quality of life, world society would not
have the social and cognitive technologies or the process knowledge to address this threat
in a rational comprehensive manner. For a humanist, the best that could be hoped for
would be a piecemeal response in which each pseudospecies, while acting primarily to
protect its own quality of life, shows a degree of concern for the wellbeing of other
But, beyond such a “hope,” how might an individual, group, nation state, or other
pseudospecies wanting to proactively improve global society’s capacity to respond to the
global problematique think and act? The suggestion I want to consider here is that such
protagonists might choose to develop, promote and, as far as possible, within their sphere
of influence, apply [[adopt??]] an ecohumanist philosophy or, if you prefer, belief
system. Humanism is a philosophy which puts human progress at its centre, and
Ecohumanism is a humanism which is informed by an extended awareness of ecosphere
processes---call it Ecawareness---including both ecological and evolutionary processes.
For example, in the spirit of Ecohumanism, I have found it illuminating and a useful
organising framework to view human history and pre-history as a pageant organised
Cosmopolitanism ref
around the core ecological idea of a succession of interdependent (pseudo) speciespopulations and the core (cultural) evolutionary idea of selective retention (by
pseudospecies ) of (technological) variation. More generally, Ecawareness is a a large
idea, a world view, within which the universe’s biological and pre-biological eras can be
understood equally as well as its cultural era, e.g. trophic webs in biology are “analogues”
of economic systems in the cultural era.
Benefits of being eco-aware
Whether an ecohumanist’s focus and sphere of influence within the human ecosystem is
local or global, he or she will try to understand what is happening in hir system of interest
by, typically:
Identifying the main pseudospecies involved and how each is changing in terms of
numbers, roles, material and energy use and acquisition, food supplies, technology mix,
belief systems, quality of life. The task here may include the identification of emerging
and declining pseudospecies.
Identifying the main ecological interactions between pseudospecies (their niches),
including, as well as conflictual relations, cooperative relations such as trade flows, joint
institutions, knowledge transfers.
Identifying processes in the focal system’s parent platforms, both the social and biophysical environments, which are affecting and being affected by pseudospecies
activities, e.g. the anthropogenic hole in the ozone layer. This will include identifying
interactions between these processes, and threatening-promising trends within them.
Identifying emerging and evolving technologies---material, social, cognitive,
communicative---and their role in niche construction.
The example to hand is that this book’s much-abridged story of the long slow rise of
global overshoot has been written with the help of similar background guidelines.
It is not being suggested that being eco-aware in this way automatically identifies the
what-to-do behaviours that will best promote quality survival. Nor does it produce a
canonical understanding of what is happening. What it does offer is an initial framework
and a succinct language (pseudospecies, platforms, social technologies etc.) which
members of a pseudospecies can use for debating what-to-do/ how-to-intervene proposals
and for moving towards a shared understanding of what is happening. More generally,
having a rich (eco) awareness of any complex system’s components stands to improve
one’s intuitive capacity---all that one normally has---to make what-to-do choices in
relation to that system.351
Identifying meta-problems
Especially when it extends back into the distant past, systematic Ecawareness can trigger
and crystallise alternative perceptions of today’s problems and opportunities. Thus, when
writing the present history, it became apparent that the meta-problems of managing
complexity and achieving cooperation and co-ordination have frequently blocked
opportunities to improve quality of life or, worse, have reduced quality of life for sizeable
numbers of people.
It can be suggested that, in the face of Global Overshoot, it is at least as important to find
technologies for addressing these and other meta-problems---such as technological
biteback, short-termism, temporal myopia, pervasive deception, sequacity, etc.---as it is
to manage the proximate causes of the Crisis (over-connection, over-depletion,
overheating, overpopulation) and prepare for its consequences (depopulation,
deurbanisation, deindustrialisation, decoupling). Indeed, it qualifies as a conceptual
advance to perceive that a handful of meta-problems are the root causes of the Global
Overshoot Crisis. Presently we will consider what might be done to overcome several of
Identifying matters which should be widely debated
If ecohumanists want their cosmopolitan philosophy and naturalistic world view to
become more widely accepted as a valuable resource for managing global society, and
they do, they have to be willing to constantly articulate, refine, question, debate and
defend their views. Capitalist economics (more generally, economismic thinking) and, to
a lesser extent, organised religion and nationalism are the dominant or privileged
discourses in contemporary global society and it is with these that Ecohumanism must
compete for influence over public policy. Perhaps environmentalism too has become
significant enough to be included here? Environmentalism is the belief that a very high
priority should be placed on protecting ecosystems from direct and indirect disturbance
by humans.
Most obviously, it is Ecohumanism’s idea that quality survival should be an overarching
goal for global society that needs to be closely examined and regularly re-examined.
While there is no space to do so here, the quality-survival goal should be comparedcontrasted with the broad social goals of the more privileged discourses. How should
goals change with circumstances? At the next level down, debateable questions abound.
Are simple, robust indicators of quality of life available? Should quality of life continue
McKenzie C and James K, (2004) Aesthetics as an aid to understanding complex
systems and decision judgement in operating complex systems, E:CO, 6 (1-2) 32-39
to be understood in terms of satisfying a hierarchy of needs? How does one balance
quality of life today against quality of life tomorrow? How should one’s understanding
of quality of life change as society’s issues of concern change? [[[repetition from chapter
5 ?]][[[[ Privileged elites are another group who may oppose the search for social goals
on the unacknowledged grounds that such are likely to have an egalitarian thrust which
could threaten privilege. see p XX]]]]]]
Earlier, a modest case was made for the claim that overshoot and declining quality of life
are already realities and that, under the intertwined impact of several ‘juggernaut’ trends,
a scenario in which global quality of life falls dramatically in coming decades becomes
highly plausible. This was the reference scenario I used for exploring alternative
perceptions of global overshoot and what should be done about it. However, while
developed sufficiently for the purposes of this book, the implications of that reference
scenario are so enormous that it needs to be questioned, challenged, re-worked and
extended as competently and as fully as global society can manage. It is not that these
efforts will reveal the future, rather that they will help us decide what to assume about it.
Appreciating the under-appreciated
While it is doubtful if there are any “laws of history,” viewing history and pre-history
through the lens of Ecawareness does generate insights which, if more widely
appreciated, might reconfigure conventional understanding as to what is happening in
global society today. Consider four illustrative examples, one for each ot the juggernaut
processes nominated as “driving” global society towards a major self-reorganisation.
Population growth
History is crammed with examples of societies where, after a long period of growth, the
population has crashed for one reason or another, bringing with it war, famine, disease
and/or collapse of the social order. Surely it is up to those who read no threat to global
society in present population growth to argue why “things are different this time.”
Resource depletion
Another of eco-history’s lessons is that humans commonly destroy the resource base on
which they depend. Diamond (1992) notes three situations in which human populations
tend to wreak great damage on their environments:
1. When people suddenly colonise an unfamiliar environment eg Maori destruction of
megafauna in New Zealand (Flannery 1994), European settlers in Australia.
2. When people advance along a new frontier (like the first peoples to reach America)
and can move on when they have damaged the region behind.
3. When people acquire a new technology whose destructive power they have not had
time to appreciate, eg New Guinea pigeon hunters with shotguns.
Societies come to rely on various renewable and non-renewable resources and when these
run out, prove inadequate (e.g. for a growing population) or degrade faster than
countervailing technologies can be developed, social reorganisation or disorganisation
becomes inevitable. Particularly in arid and variable climates, deforestation, time and
again, has led to soil erosion and the destruction of dams and terraces, e.g. in the classical
Aegean civilization. As a rule of thumb, irrigation-based civilizations such as first arose
in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley several thousand years BCE seldom last
more than a few centuries before degrading the soil resource through salting and
waterlogging. In general, it is intensification in resource use which leads to
environmental depletion and, from there, to either sudden collapse of the cultural system
or a shift to a new mode of production. Even when resource degradation has not been
fatal, adjustment to it has usually been painful in quality-of-life terms for ordinary people.
Now we have the situation where global society has become highly dependent on a
number of resources which are rapidly depleting or degrading or in shortening supply.
Oil and arable land are the standout examples with rock phosphate, fresh water and
marine fish stocks somewhat less so. Where Interventionists and Reconstructionists
differ is on whether the human ecosystem is headed for reorganisation or disorganisation.
Global warming and after
In recent decades, historians have become increasingly aware of the recurring role played
by environmental events (e.g. earthquakes, floods, droughts, tsunamis, cyclones and
storms, volcanic eruptions) and transitions (e.g. climate change, sea level change) in
guiding and channelling human history.352 Earlier chapters provide many examples, most
involving disruption of existing social organisation---migrations, invasions, dispersals--and some, like the Mt Toba eruption and the Holocene thawing having had world-wide
(cf. regional) impacts on quality survival .
Now, the whole world is experiencing a period of rapid warming of unpredictable
duration and magnitude. Environmental history allows us to see this in perspective. At
one level, such an environmental transition is not unusual and humans will adapt to it as
best they can---just as they will when, within the next few thousand years, another glacial
age that will last 100 000 to perhaps 120 000 years will probably begin on Earth,
reducing mean temperatures from current levels by as much as 10 deg C at times.
At another level, current global warming has the potential to be incredibly disruptive by
historical standards. Most regions stand to be directly affected in terms of temperatures,
rainfall, storminess. Recent population growth means a billion people in coastal cities
stand to be displaced as sea levels rise. The oceans stand to become stagnant biological
deserts as they acidify and as circulatory flows slow. And faster than anticipated
warming will produce greater disruption than slower warming. Because most regions
will be themselves disrupted, they are more likely to transmit disruption (e.g.
Fagan The Great Warming
uncontrolled emigration) rather than assistance to their distressed neighbours. This is
what happened as a chain of societies collapsed across Eurasia in the late Bronze Age.
Unless something is to be done about them, the fact that global warming is being caused,
to a greater or lesser extent, by humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions is irrelevant.
Nevertheless, if society’s implicit strategy is adaptation, not mitigation, it will still be
important to understand the trajectory of the warming process, and tracking emissions
will be part of that.
As noted earlier, Eric Chaisson has championed the useful idea that the complexity of a
dissipative system is measured by its free energy rate density.353 This is the extent to
which, per gm of material in a system, the system is taking in and processing high quality
(free) energy and excreting low quality energy (entropy). Consistent with the principle of
maximum entropy production, he has further argued that the upper threshold of
observable complexity has been rising since the beginning of the universe. For example,
while stars have a free energy rate density of approximately 2 ergs per 0.1 gm per 0.1 sec,
the figure for the human body is approximately 20 000 ergs per 0.1 gm per 0.1 sec.354
Drawing the bulk of its energy supplies from the Earth’s stock of non-renewable fossil
fuels, the figure for a modern industrial ecosystem might be 20-30 times higher again.
The world-wide human ecosystem is continuing to become more complex as primary
energy use rises. However, as fossil fuel supplies are drawn down, the system stands to
spontaneously self-reorganise, in one way or another, to a multiplicity of simpler
structures, e.g. with fewer links between nation states. Alternatively, if renewable energy
sources come to be tapped in sufficient quantities, the system could retain its present
complexity, or even self-reorganise to a higher level of complexity. Complex
technologies allow society to tap the large energy flows needed to maintain complexity!
We now turn to a discussion of Ecohumanism as a source of praxis, a useful word
meaning “informed action.” It was suggested above that the Global Overshoot Crisis has
proximate causes in the form of various juggernaut processes and root causes in the form
of various meta-problems which are pervasive and which make the effective management
of the juggernauts, singly or collectively, difficult in the extreme. Here, I present
perspectives on two perennially intractable meta-problems, complexity and cooperation,
Chaisson 2001
Based on Eric J. Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 139.
and offer several exemplary guidelines, not for solving these, but for learning to better
cope with them.
Some guidelines for coping with complexity
1. Acknowledging complexity
The first principle for guiding what-to-do decision-making in a complex world is to
acknowledge that complexity. Consider policy-making in the nation-state as an example.
It has already been argued that all behaviour is more-or-less experimental (see page XX).
So, when trying to solve a what-to-do problem rationally, a government must be routinely
prepared to respond further as its actions prove inadequate for the problem as initially
conceived. However, politicians in the developed world are locked into a convention that
they should pretend to know with certainty how to respond to issues of concern (e.g. the
juggernaut processes) and what the consequences of their confident policies will be. In
adversarial societies, and that includes Western democracies, political conflict can enrich
perceptions of issues but the cost of coping with pretence and deceit is enormous.
Seeking a balance here will be considered presently as an aspect of the pseudospecies
2. Deliberate experimentation
Once complexity and its uncertainties are acknowledged, a variety of other principles for
improving decision-making under complexity emerge for consideration. One such is to
explicitly treat each policy initiative as a deliberate (i.e. not unplanned) experiment, note
its effects and, based on these, design a further policy experiment.355 A refinement which
might be possible sometimes would be to trial multiple policy “treatments”
simultaneously. There is a parallel here with the operation of natural selection on a
genetically diverse population.
3. Monitoring societal change
Homeostasis is the ability of biological organisms (and ecosystems) to return to “normal”
functioning after being subjected to outside disturbance, e.g regulation of body
temperature. The effectiveness of homeostatic mechanisms depends on signals of
environmental change (e.g.warming) being fed back rapidly from environment to
organism, e.g via short unimpeded pathways. In the same way, knowing what is
happening in and to a human ecosystem as it is happening allows decision-makers to
begin correcting problems before they get out of hand. If unemployment (e.g.) gets too
high as measured (monitored), some countervailing action such as reducing interest rates
can be taken even though the effects of such action cannot be accurately predicted. It is
monitoring which then tells us if the countervailing action has worked or needs further
adjustment.356 To some degree, monitoring in real time can be thought of as
Holling and Walters
de Groot, R.S., 1988
compensating for humanity’s limited ability to predict system behaviour. In practice,
balancing the costs and benefits of developing monitoring programs will always be
As well as changing in response to outside disturbances (e.g. invasion), activity levels in
human ecosystems, tend to go through cycles or oscillations, such being part of the
“normal” internal dynamics of any chaotic dissipative system. Many such cycles are the
result of a time-lag between a causal trigger and its subsequent effect. For example, there
is evidence that unemployment rates are driven by birth rates 15-20 years earlier.357 Or,
recall the earlier discussion of longer and shorter cycles of economic activity in mature
economies (see page XX). Without monitoring, the cyclical behaviour of socio-economic
activity is unlikely to be understood and taken into account when deciding how to
respond to change. The longer the period for which a socio-economic activity is
monitored, the more valuable the accumulated data becomes in terms of being able to
recognise if a recent downturn (say) in some indicator of interest is due to:
a downturn in a long-term trend
a downturn in a wavelike oscillation about that trend, or
a downturn in a (short-term) high-frequency fluctuation about an oscillation.358
4. Technology design and asssessment
New technologies are the raw material of eco-cultural evolution Within a decisionmaker’s sphere of influence, problems and opportunities are putatively addressed by
devising or collating a range of candidate technologies and selecting one for
implementation. It is because so many technologies (material, social etc.) solve problems
as intended, only to then “bite back” and create new problems, that technology
asssessment and design should be an important part of coping with the uncertainties of
managing contemporary socio-economic systems.359 The guideline here is that
technologies should be designed and “pre-assessed” in a broader context than their
immediate functionality.
When a society adopts a new technology, resources have to be diverted from other uses
and, as well as the obvious beneficiaries, there will be those who, suffering from the
disruption of the status quo,seek redress. But the bigger challenge in assessing a
proposed technology is to foresee the ways in which the benefits of the technology might
be eroded by the slow march of ancilliary processes set in train by the new technology.
Watt 1992
Tenner E (1996) Why Things Bite Back: New Technology and the Revenge Effect,
Fourth Estate, London.
For example, China’s “one child” policy, a social technology designed to slow population
growth, has now led, after a generation, to problems of gender and demographic
imbalance. Given our inability to develop formal predictive models of eco-cultural
evolution, decision-makers can only rely on having an intuitive understanding of their
focal systems to foresee strongly-lagged feedback effects and imagine how such might be
circumvented. The more general advice here is to be aware that “biteback” is widespread
and to be looking for it.
5. Encouraging recycling and renewable energy technologies
In both human-free and simple human ecosystems (societies), materials tend to be used
cyclically, passing from one use to another before returning to their original uses. Longlasting ecosystems retain (hold within their boundaries) the materials (e.g. nutrients,
substrate) on which their participants depend; or, at least, materials ‘leak’ from the
ecosystem no faster than they are acquired from the parent system. Ecosystem
participants (e.g. species, pseudospecies) are linked mutualistically (interdependently)
through an intricate set of feedback relationships in which the well-being of any
participant depends on the well-being of many other participants. These feedback loops,
the so-called “web of life,” are the paths over which materials are (re) cycled.
Under what conditions does recycling help a society cope with complexity? City
ecosystems in particular recycle and re-use only a small fraction of their material inputs.
Most becomes waste or dispersed pollutants. For example, many coastal cities lose most
of their food-nutrient inputs offshore as sewage; petroleum is not recycled at all. If an
input is abundant and readily acquired, the costs of establishing a recycling capability
may well exceed the benefits, even including the external benefits of waste and pollution
reduction. However, as pollutants accumulate or supplies dwindle, recycling, re-using
and rationing of material inputs stand to become more attractive options. In terms of
coping with complexity, these technologies extend the overshoot “lead” time before
disorganisation or reorganisation is rudely imposed on the society. This delay period can
be used to develop and implement less problematic substitute technologies, paving the
way for a minimally–disruptive reorganisation.
The “unsustainable” use of fossil fuels associated with oil depletion and carbon dioxide
pollution is the supreme example of our time. For more than a century, economic growth
and the complexification of global society has been made possible, indeed “subsidised,”
by the ready availability of fossil fuels, notably oil, which have high energy-profit ratios;
that is to say, a large quantity of usable energy in the form of oil can be captured by
expending a small quantity of usable energy, e.g. drilling a hole. Renewable-energy
technologies (solar, wind, hydro etc.) have much lower energy-profit ratios than fossilenergy technologies. While this greatly magnifies the rate of capital investment required
to largely replace fossil-energy technologies with renewable-energy technologies over a
period of a few decades, many Interventionists believe such to be possible and something
to be encouraged.
6 Investing in resilience
Looking backwards, societies we think of as having been resilient or robust are those
which pre-empted or recovered quickly from large and rapid falls in average quality of
life (e.g. deaths, disabilities, diseases, hunger, fear) precipitated by large exogenous
disturbances (such as floods, fires, droughts, invasions, epidemics) or, less often,
internally-generated disturbances such as coups. In the Medieval Warm Period for
example, comprehensively documented by Brian Fagan,360 civilizations around the world
survived repeated extended droughts before, in most cases, resilience exhausted, finally
Can we judge the as-yet-untested resilience of contemporary global society, threatened as
it is by the juggernauts of global overshoot---overpopulation, over-depletion, overheating
and over-connectedness between social structures? My reference scenario postulates
gross disorganisation of world society over coming decades, implying, not a resilient
society, but a brittle or fragile one. In rejecting that scenario, Interventionists imagine
that quality of life can and will be protected through the use of conventional collective
instruments for coping with change in the stocks and flows associated with population,
material resources, pollutants and trade, e.g. taxes-subsidies, cap-and-trade schemes and
This may or may not be so. Our immediate interest is in whether complex dissipative
systems have properties which suggest general strategies for making societies more
resilient. For example, as noted above, monitoring the advance of threatening change and
designing forward-looking technologies are both approaches to countering the inherent
unpredictability of such systems. [[Creating an educated, sociable society may be
another (see below).]]
Unusually large oscillations in a society’s activity levels may indicate that the society is
near its homeostatic limits and at risk of disorganisation or reorganisation. Reducing
current consumption to allow deliberate investment in (a) buffer stocks and (b) redundant
pathways is a basic strategy for reducing that risk by, in effect, expanding the society’s
homeostatic limits. Buffer stocks of uncommitted capital (e.g wheat stockpiles, American
oil farms, stored vaccines) can be drawn down when supply chains are interrupted.
Increasing resilience by investing in redundancy means building infrastructure which has
spare capacity under normal operating conditions, e.g. power grids with alternative links
and back-up generators; the Internet. Normal operating levels can then be maintained by
calling on this spare capacity when other parts of the infrastructure complement fail or
become unavailable in some way.
Fagan, B The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
Bloomsbury, New York. 2008
361 Future Makers, Future Takers; People Policy
A brittle society is one where initial disturbances, rather than being buffered or diverted,
spread rapidly, bringing widespread disorganisation. Such runaway change is more likely
in societies where activities are connected in certain particular ways. For example, in
strongly hierarchical societies where decisions flow down from a central authority, the
inactivation or malfunction of the society’s control centre, or its few communication
links, can disrupt activities at all lower levels in the hierarchy. Or, more generally,
societies where activities are grouped into a relatively small number of tightly-integrated
sub-systems (hubs), each loosely linked to its neighbours, can be badly disrupted by
disconnecting a single hub. In 2008, the global finance system proved to be such a hub in
global society. Another source of brittleness is long-chain dependency, the situation
where important activities can only be completed after a long chain of prior activities is
first completed, e.g. supplying component parts to the automobilie industry. Breaking
any link disrupts all links. Conversely, modular societies, those organised into a large
number of small but relatively self-sufficient sub-systems, only loosely connected, are
more likely to prove resilient, e.g. tribal societies.
Note, finally, that investing in resilience always has an opportunity cost, one involving a
tradeoff between (a) saving the system from possible future failure and (b) foregoing
beneficial output (e.g. immediate gains in quality of life) from the system in the short
7. Marginal incrementalism
The political scientist CE Lindblom argued that very few situations can be changed other
than marginally in democratic societies and that a philosophy of `muddling through' by
making frequent small changes in the `right' direction without particular reference to
ultimate destinations is in fact an optimal strategy for managing society---not terribly
effective but optimal.362 Certainly better than deconstructing the system and having faith
in ‘market forces’. Recall that evolution works the same way. It must be accepted
though that ‘marginal incrementalism’ is a slow business, not suited to tackling urgent
problems such as global overshoot.
As part of “muddling through,” intermediate goals themselves need to be regularly
revised, even as progress towards those goals is being monitored. As noted earlier (see
page XX), many social problems are “wicked” in not having any definitive formulation
and it has to be accepted that ideas as to what is wanted from an intervention may well
change as intervention proceeds. In the same vein, initial working goals should always
be chosen from a sufficiently large pool of candidates.
[[[steering not rowing ..can you steer system towards quality of life ? see marginal
inctlm ….…[[[deliberate experimentation …from 9 dialogue intelligent and directed
knowledge acquisition programs, particularly scientific research programs, will reveal
Lindblom, CE 1959
new possibilities for actions and their consequences while discounting or rewriting
currently-foreseen possibilities.
8 Avoiding gridlock
It was suggested earlier (see page XX Global and regional life cycles) that human
ecosystems which keep increasing in complexity as a consequence of processing more
and more energy from the larger environment (e.g. an industrialising society) will, at
some stage, begin to senesce or, metaphorically, to age. A senescent society is not
necessarily brittle (subject to runaway changes), but it will not be (as) resilient in face of
large disturbances. Nor will it be (as) able to find ways of reorganising to improve quality
of life significantly, e.g. Australia has great difficulty in changing its Constitution. These
are the characteristics of a society entering gridlock, i.e. one where resources are
increasingly unavailable for investing in either “future-proofing” or progress. Causes can
include the inertia of habitual behaviour, inertia from information overload and the selfinterested locking-up of resources by elite pseudospecies, e.g. feudal estates.363 As stock
resources (e.g. accessible land) become scarcer in a growing society, existing activities
have to be reduced to release resources for new activities. This may be difficult.
Pluralistic stagnation is a form of gridlock found in mature societies where adversarial
stakeholders with little concern for the public interest continually nullify each other’s
attempts to improve their lot---even when the collective benefits exceed the collective
costs.364 Pluralistic stagnation, so common in the developed world, is an excellent
example of the pseudospecies problem to be discussed below (see page. XX)
An increasingly senescent society can persist for generations in an unchallenging
environment, but can the onset of senescence be delayed? Graeme Snooks (1996) argues
that the rise and fall of societies is an outcome of their opportunistic development and
exhaustion of the four dynamic strategies of family multiplication, conquest, commerce,
and technological change. In the present context, these are strategies for delaying
senescence; they expand the availability of resources perceived to be limiting or, in the
case of technological change, using a resource more efficiently makes it less limiting. In
our globalised over-populated world it is technological change (the basis of economic
growth) and trade which continue to be recognised---not explicitly as bulwarks against
senescence, but as engines of “progress. ”
For societies which recognise and acknowledge that senescence and gridlock can happen,
and which have the necessary cohesiveness and purpose, there exists a wealth of ideas
that might be explored with the hope of delaying senescence. For example:
Societies can be kept simple by capping their energy use. This may confer the additional
benefit of protecting long-term energy supplies. If an energy cap can be reduced slowly
over time, it will allow the society to reorganise smoothly.
Lindblom 1959, 1965 ??Olson??
There are various ways in which the power of conservative elites to block adaptive
change can be reduced, e.g. by strengthening democracy (see page XX).
While it is more difficult to coordinate strategic activities in a more modular society (e.g.
one with strong local government), this does allow resources to be re-assigned, module
by module, without challenging the society’s overall resilience. For example, sunset
legislation (e.g. regular elections) allows a module to “die,” in evolutionary terms, and to
be “reborn” without some of the shackles of previous arrangements. Given the
implications for senescence, resilience, brittleness and adaptability (see below), balancing
devolution and centralisation will always be problematic.
9. Encouraging cultural diversity
A culturally diverse society is one which has a wide range of institutions and economic
activities and a mixture of pseudospecies with a wide range of world views, occupations
and lifestyles. For example, the coexistence of a broad range of political and religious
opinions (John Rawls’ ‘reasonable pluralism’ (1993: 134)) reflects diversity in a society’s
A diverse society may be more brittle than a theocratic or simple tribal society (see page
XX in 2B) but it is also more likely to generate policy ideas, not only for improving
resilience, but, more proactively, for advancing mean quality of life. Just as genetic and
trophic diversity allows biological systems (species, ecosystems) to survive and (pre)
adapt to change, ideas and recipes for implementing ideas are the raw material of cultural
evolution. It was suggested above that policy initiatives in complex societies be treated
as experiments and that such need to be carefully designed to avoid unwelcome sideeffects. It is around emergent ideas that such initiatives are constructed. If ideas are to
emerge freely, it is particularly important that all individuals be supported (e.g. through
the school system) in their efforts to develop their own individuality and, especially in a
gridlocked society, helped to avoid conformism. Radical ideas (e.g. questioning the
value of prisons or of drug prohibitions) need to be properly debated, not dismissed.
Let us pause here on the grounds that space does not permit a fuller taxonomy of the
many principles and on-ground options that it might benefit societies to keep in mind as
they tackle what-to-do problems in a complex unpredictable world. We turn now to our
second suggested root cause of the overshoot crisis, namely, the difficulty that groups of
all sizes have in working cooperatively towards mutually beneficial ends.
Some guidelines for coping with the pseudospecies problem
Recall that a (human) pseudospecies is a group of people who, mostly, interact
cooperatively and who may sometimes have conflictual or competitive interactions with
other pseudospecies (see page XX). The concept is basic to understanding inter-and intragroup relationships---from war and class struggle to street gangs and partisan mutual
adjustment in liberal democracies. Here, we will focus more on the pseudospecies
problem as it appears at the scale of the international community, namely, the problem of
improving cooperation and reducing conflict within the existing system of nation states.
We have in mind of course the Interventionists’ goal of securing international
cooperation with respect to responding to the perception of a Global Overshoot Crisis.
1. Towards a World Federation
From an ecohumanist perspective, there can be no permanent answer to the question of
how world society should be organised politically. Inevitably, as times change, so do
political solutions. Nevertheless, the guideline suggesting itself here is that now is an
appropriate time for moving towards a World Federation in which nations can both
cooperate and develop individually (Polanyi 1944| 2001). Federation is a well-tried form
of political union. The version being suggested here, like the Australian federation,
leaves all responsibilities not specifically covered in the articles of association, to the
individual state.
As noted earlier (see page XX), it is difficult to envisage any scenario where a World
Federation arises outside the platform of the United Nations. Despite being
undemocratically controlled by Security Council members and their vassals in their own
short-term interests, such a transformation is not inconceivable. It would probably have
to start with another charter-making conference---San Francisco Two. Progress may also
have to wait on prior federations in Europe, Africa and Latin America. The magnitude of
this task relative to the time that might be available before a contractionary bottleneck
appears will seem unrealistic to many.
Membership of the World Federation would be open to any state accepting the UN’s
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a remarkable document. Secession from the
Federation would require a people’s referendum to protect against self-serving leaders.
Indeed, the people might need to be represented directly, as well as through their states, if
the World Federation is to be seen as legitimate. Procedures for suspending states
breaking the Federation’s laws would have to be established, as would procedures for
disadvantaging free riders. The massive funding required to run a World Federation
would probably come in part from taxes on all international transactions including trade,
capital and communications and in part from taxes on resource use (eg fossil energy, land
clearing) and pollution (eg carbon emissions). International companies might be taxed on
some mix of their profits, assets and dividends.
No state is going to act against its perceived national interest, so what would be the
benefits of Federation membership? Given that the Federation’s goal would be to seek
quality survival there would be obvious immediate material benefits for disadvantaged
third world countries pursuing modernisation. More broadly, the world’s capacity to
solve its trans-national problems (war, crime, pollution, trade, aid, migration, capital
flows, espionage, terrorism, water flows…) would benefit from an enhanced sociality,
stability and predictability in international relations.
2. War and conflict
To take a specific example, how might the World Federation move to reduce the scourges
of war and armed conflict, destined as these are to worsen if the reference scenario
eventuates? There may be “just” wars but, given a goal of quality survival, the costs of
war mostly outweigh any possible gains.
Let me start with a bright idea. Hazel Henderson (1998b: 229) includes a United Nations
Security Insurance Agency in a list of desirable new global institutions. Nations could
buy insurance against potential aggression with premiums being used to fund
peacekeeping and conflict-resolution contingents. Perhaps, to further boost the fund,
those major powers that are heavily involved in arms sales and nuclear proliferation
should be taxed on these activities. Other ideas with further potential to ameliorate the
horrors of war include the International Criminal Court, disarmament negotiations and
weapons conventions (eg banning anti-personnel mines). Community and international
peace organisations should be given every encouragement. The prevention of war is a
responsibility the world has to keep nibbling at on diverse fronts. The overarching
guideline for preventing war and conflict is that the world, whether federated or not,
should be run as a participatory and pluralist democracy.
But what happens when conflict does appear? Traditional international relations models
(eg Morgenthau and Thompson 1985) assume conflict (having incompatible goals)
inevitably turns to war unless constrained by deterrence, ie the threat of deadly
retaliation. Given the prevalence of war, it has to be assumed that deterrence is not
applied sufficiently or that the theory is wrong and deterrence does not deter, e.g. Korea,
Vietnam. The non-traditional view, my preference, is that inter-group conflicts can
frequently be resolved without (further) deadly violence if the underlying frustrated needs
of the conflicting pseudospecies can be teased out, through dialogue and if the parties
then jointly search for political solutions satisfying both sets of needs.
Having said that, resource-based conflicts which are being driven by population growth
do seem depressingly intractable. The conflict-resolution approach has some successes to
its credit but, once spear–rattling, demonisation, historical revisionism and counteraccusations have commenced, conflicting parties find it difficult to come together in this
way. A period of violence seems, almost, to be first necessary. It may be that conflictresolution methods will have to prove themselves at the domestic and community level
(as is happening) before being accepted for use in international and ‘tribal’ conflicts.
Nonetheless, conflict-resolution conferencing and dialoguing, conducted in secret, should
be offered to all parties in actual or potential war situations (Burton 1996). The
importance to a people of just having their group identity recognised by others cannot be
3. Educating for sociality
As well as improving the political institutions and processes through which extant
pseudospecies interact, there is a second broad approach to ameliorating the
pseudospecies problem. It is socio-psychological and centres on attempting to bring
about widespread changes in people’s attitudes towards others. Specifically, this is a
strategy to develop societies in which sociality is high, i.e. where amicable relations
between people predominate. In such societies, attitudes are fraternal or sisterly,
meaning that people tend to regard others, even strangers, as their metaphorical brothers
and sisters. Sociality is more than sociability. It implies social relationships marked by
the expression of such behaviours as nurturing, fellowship goodwill, empathy, altruism,
love, affection, concern, trust, agape, civility, collaboration, helpfulness, togetherness,
belongingness, inclusiveness, mutualism, cohesion, loyalty and solidarity. Sociality can
be contrasted with sociopathy, a set of attitudes under which most people tend to regard
others as enemies to be mistrusted and exploited. Tribalism, territoriality and hostilityindifference to others characterise sociopathy.
Sociality is important for two reasons. In a society where sociality is the norm, many of
the individual’s higher needs which have to be met if a quality life is to be achieved (see
pxx ) will, to some extent, be automatically satisfied, including the needs for safety,
security, belongingness and affection, esteem, respect and self-respect. The second
importance of sociality is that it is indicative of a cooperative society, meaning one in
which people easily and readily come together to exploit the synergies of collective
action (see pXX). More than that, a civilised society which has learned the benefits of
amicable relations among its own interest groups will be open to extending these local
attitudes to relations with other societies.
At this point, the practical question is whether sociality can be taught and learned. Both
sociality and sociopathy have their roots in the behaviour of our hunter-gatherer forebears
who evolved instinctive and useful appetencies for cooperation within the group and for
hostility towards outsiders (see pXX). It needs to be recognised that both appetencies
still exist even though, apart from a limited role in stimulating social criticism and as an
indicator of unmet needs, sociopathy has no apparent function in a complex society.
Human behaviour is very malleable and children can be brought up to hate or to be
fraternal-sisterly and cooperative. For example, children in lightly-supervised playgroups
teach each other cooperation. Such socialisation is easy in a society which is already
fraternal-sisterly simply because most behaviour is imitative. People treat each other
much as they themselves have been treated. However, under conditions of stress,
insecurity, crisis and declining expectations, sociality tends to be replaced by sociopathy.
Along with meliorating those imposts, as part of restoring people’s quality-of-life
prospects, sociality has to be actively nurtured by teaching and example.
Experiential learning is one social technology with an important role to play in blurring
the boundaries between pseudospecies. Children and young adults who are helped to
spend time living outside their own societies (e.g. studying abroad) are more likely to
recognise the essential similarity of peoples from different cultures. Familiarity breeds
acceptance and, in conflict situations, perhaps empathy and respect for the other’s
position. By the same token, given the importance to sociality of being able to trust that
one is not being deceived, educating people to understand and detect deceit would also
seem to be a guideline for building or rebuilding sociality (see p XX).
4.Constraining elites
History shows, in almost every society, that once elite groups have obtained control of
energy surpluses and the social and economic privileges these support, they are loath to
return to a society offering a more equitable distribution of life opportunities (see pXX
confliction and ….). And to the extent that the majority accept this order of things there
is no “pseudospecies problem.” In modern democratic societies, persuasion, not
coercion, is the instrument that elites use to maintain their position. This is done by
controlling the institutions which reproduce the thought patterns of the state, namely the
education system, the media, the churches and government itself.
To the extent that the majority are unhappily conscious of this imbalance, political
democracy remains their most promising social technology for achieving change. What
they need to first realise is that democracy itself is a generic instrument which can be
used to support the search for and adoption of diverse social technologies which further
improve democracy as a change instrument, e.g. through the elimination of privilege, the
management of populism.
The body of social technologies which may have a part to play in reducing the
uncertainties caused by complexity and pervasive disagreement has only been touched on
here. Also, it would be quite wrong to suggest that those mentioned are uniquely the
products of an ecohumanist perspective. The point remains though that this perspective
is a promising source of ideas for overcoming the root problems that impede attempts to
address the more proximate causes of global overshoot. We move on to asking if the
ecohumanist’s story of the origins of global overshoot offers appropriate emotional
inspiration to a global society facing the possibility of massive disorganisation.
In this Chapter, I have so far argued that Ecohumanism---a mixture of a story, a
philosophy and a belief system---is a doctrine which people may find useful for rationally
understanding how and why the human ecosystem has changed historically, is changing
and might change. Also, the Chapter begins to demonstrate that Ecohumanism contains
sufficient ideas to spawn guidelines for better managing the processes that are driving
changes in global quality of life.
But, beyond these virtues---praxis and factual understanding---we now ask if people will
be emotionally inclined to accept Ecohumanism as a platform from which to contemplate
the possibility of global overshoot. More specifically, does the ecohumanist’s Story of
Global Overshoot have qualities which are more rather than less likely to evoke positive
emotional reactions in those exposed to it? This is important. Recall (see p XX) that it is
(only) ideas carrying a positive emotional tag which get accepted as input into decisionmaking processes. For example, is Ecohumanism likely to appeal to post-modern people,
attuned to making their way in an individualistic marketised society? Can one be an
ecohumanist while remaining loyal to one’s ethnic, political, national, ideological,
religious etc. pseudospecies? Will a fear that global society is about to be overwhelmed
by multiple problems prompt people to look beyond their existing belief systems?
While people cannot be reasoned into switching from one belief system to another, and
encouraging that is not my intention, I will recapitulate some elements of Ecohumanism
which I believe are more likely, on balance, to evoke positive rather than negative
To start, Ecohumanism is a narrative for all humanity. No-one is excluded. It
emphasises that we are all members of one species, the product of one continuous
evolutionary process extending back to the beginning of the universe.365 Science
has demonstrated that physiognomic and physiological differences between
peoples rest on minor genetic differences. From there, it is a small step to
accepting that strangers have minds like one’s own and, notwithstanding cultural
differences, needs like one’s own. Strangers lose their strangeness. For many
people, once this common biological inheritance is accepted, the inherent concern
they have for the wellbeing of their immediate relatives expands to embrace the
species as a whole; and that is the humanist perspective.
Ecohumanism recognises that any group of people living in in a particular place
for generations will evolve a place-specific culture which helps the group to
persist; and that if the group is transplanted it will, to a greater or lesser extent,
take its culture with it. Notwithstanding, when its environment changes, a culture
can only evolve at a rate which does not destroy its overall coherence.
Recognising the origins of cultural differences does not necessarily preclude
conflict and tension when cultures intermingle. But it may help. That is,
knowledge offers an alternative to knee-jerk hostility.
Ecohumanism finds no need for a belief in the supernatural. Much that puzzled
our pre-Enlightenment forebears can now be explained scientifically, while
remaining puzzles such as biogenesis and the pre-universe are being slowly
clarified. Religious beliefs in interventionist gods are viewed as elaborations of
the primitive animistic belief that everything is alive (see p XX). Such religions
are social technologies which, inter alia, help people satisfy their need for
meaning, for a model of the world. While Ecohumanism is not a religion, it is a
“spiritual” doctrine in the sense that understanding how the world and its people
Christian D Journal of World History 2003 World History in Context
evolved is a precursor to feeling “at home in the universe” and “at home with
Ecohumanism offers the individual the existential challenge of being responsible
for hir own morality. Viewed as a moral philosophy, Ecohumanism suggests
quality survival as an overarching goal for global society and hence as a broad
criterion for guiding social and individual choices. Beyond that broad criterion,
Ecohumanism is situational and pragmatic rather than prescriptive. For example,
faced with multiple candidate interventions for addressing global overshoot, the
ecohumanist does hir intuitive, aesthetic best to choose the one offering most in
quality survival terms.
In inter-personal relations, the ethic which flows naturally from the ecohumanist
perspective is present already, in one way or another, in all the world’s major
religions, both theistic (e.g. Islam, Judaism, Christianity) and non-theistic(e.g.
Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism). Because every person’s quality of life is
equally important, because every person has an equal right to happiness, humans
must take loving responsibility for the wellbeing of others.366 The “golden rule”
or “ethic of reciprocity” against which one’s actions can be checked has been
expressed in startlingly similar terms in a score of religions.367 While
Ecohumanism has no place for mythical and supernatural figures, it recognises
educational and inspirational value in the stories of great human beings such as
Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce and Paul Robeson.
Ecohumanism is an expanding and adaptive doctrine, not rigid. It is built around a
revelatory and ever-richer story of an evolving cosmos. In the spirit of science,
all its “truths” are provisional and open to question. Inescapably though, it takes
curiosity, time, effort and opportunity to become eco-aware.
Ecohumanism is an honest doctrine, unbeholden to the interests of any particular
pseudospecies. It tries to listen to and understand all points of view. It does not
pretend to knowledge or authority it does not have. But it gives no credence to
implausible hopes such as life after death or, indeed, implausible threats such as
judgement day and eternal Hell.
Nevertheless, Ecohumanism recognises that fear of the future, particularly death,
is a powerful, universal emotion and identifies insights which might help people
accept their fear and not be paralysed by it. As Rilke’s Duino Elegy muses, it is
knowledge of death that makes life so precious. As individuals and as a species,
we have emerged from a cosmic process and will be reabsorbed by it. Without
the metaphorical “deaths” of anti-matter and exploding “furnace” stars, there
M Clark p 298 (Accessed Oct 31 2009)
would be no Planet Earth today. Without the deaths of innumerable plants in the
Carboniferous era, there would be no oil to energise global society. In the
economy, it is the deaths of old enterprises which unlock resources for the
creation of new enterprises. In a finite world, it is human death which allows
cultures and genomes to evolve. In general, death can be seen as a creative
“technology” which makes evolution---the selective retention of variation--possible.
Ecohumanism has few illusions about the status of Homo sapiens. It should not
need saying, but, given our appetency for self-deception (see P XX), we may need
to remind ourselves that we are not lords of the universe, destined for endless
progress. Nor are we participants in some Manichean drama, fighting to secure
the ultimate victory of good over evil. At this stage in our history we are more
like impulsive adolescents, with limited foresight and self-discipline;
notwithstanding, we are unlikely to wipe ourselves out yet awhile. We have been
lucky in two important ways. One is with pre-adaptations, particularly the
adaptations we brought with us when moving from a forest habitat to a savanna
habitat (see p XX). The other is that while the environment is always changing
and threatening extinction, it has never changed fast enough to overwhelm our
capacity to adapt.
Ecohumanism is non-judgemental. A simple but rich way of looking at people is
to see them, whether by pseudospecies or individually, as rational agents, busily
devising new technologies and applying received technologies (material, social,
cognitive, communicative) to the end of meeting a spectrum of needs. People
make their rational choices from sets of possibilities which are constrained in
numerous ways, including being constrained by their values, their present
technologies, their beliefs and their cognitive skills.(see p XX cruelty discussion..
(see pXX Deep processes of cultural evolution)). It is commonplace, but usually
unproductive, to judge past behaviours from contemporary perspectives, e.g. as
noble, altruistic, immoral, stupid, short-sighted etc.368 Indeed, I am inclined to
accept the argument of Jaynes and others that humans, prior to the first
millennium BCE, did not experience consciousness as we understand it (see P
[[[[[[[What history can tell us is something of how the constraints moulding
contemporary behaviour have evolved and are currently trending. For example
the Global Overshoot Crisis is clearly related to the human community’s
enthusiastic adoption of a string of historical developments in energy-capturing
and food-production technologies. Overshoot is the consequence of
pseudospecies choosing technologies for their own benefit, largely unconcerned
for or ignorant of the extenalities (or precursors to externalities) that their choices
Jonathan Yardley gordon wood e-library
impose on others in the form of population growth, resource depletion,
complexification and global overheating . ]]]]]]
This book started with a perception that, in terms of people’s quality-of-life prospects, the
future of global society has become much more uncertain in recent years. While the data
which might show average quality of life to be falling is inconclusive, the world is
certainly being impacted by a number of accumulative processes which, considered
jointly, give a degree of plausibility to a Global Overshoot scenario, meaning a scenario
in which global quality of life falls dramatically in coming decades. This scenario became
the proposition from which I postulated three alternative perceptions of global overshoot
processes and what should be done about them, viz.:
Not plausible at this time, not to the point of requiring pre-emptive action
Plausible if ignored , but likely to be managed to the point of having a low impact
on global quality of life (Immediate Interventionists).
Plausible, but unmanageable in any comprehensive way; better to focus on postbottleneck recovery measures (Reconstructionists).
So, based on this span of reactions to the reference scenario, we have an emerging Global
Overshoot Crisis which could have severe or mild or even insignificant consequences.
My own working hypothesis, a provisional diagnosis perhaps, but increasingly supported
as I have conceptualised and filled out my understanding of the deep origins of this
Crisis, is that, for good reasons, something like the reference scenario will play out in
coming decades.
Let me recapitulate those reasons. Humans, endowed as they are with a talent for
technological innovation, have created a highly connected global society, a dissipative
system which requires massive and increasing quantities of exogenous energy, and other
inputs, to maintain it and to support its ongoing complexification. Should the normal
operations of this system change rapidly (over several decades, say) and extensively,
many people’s lives will be disrupted and global quality of life may, likewise, fall
In particular, if the four juggernaut processes I have nominated do not slow of their own
accord, or are not mitigated in some way, they stand, singly and interactively, to trigger
waves of rapid reorganisation in global society. Simple eco-aware reasoning is enough to
produce plausible scenarios of how population growth, resource depletion, global
warming and linkage proliferation might overwhelm global society’s capacity to absorb
change without disintegrating (see pp XX). Conversely, I cannot find plausible scenarios
which suggest that these proximate causes of the Global Overshoot Crisis might slow of
their own accord (e.g. through value shifts) in coming decades or how they might be
defused by purposive human action on a sufficiently large scale.
Why not? Didn’t the Interventionist response to the reference scenario (see p XX)
envisages a range of measures that global society could take to ameliorate/adapt to the
proximate causes of the Crisis? Some such have already been implemented, albeit in a
limited and piecemeal way, by governments and other pseudospecies. But, like the
Reconstructionists, I see little evidence that global society has the cognitive ability or the
knowledge base to devise promising solutions to such large what-to-do problems or to
forge the required cooperation between the world’s pseudospecies, particularly its nation
states. I suggest that these two problems, managing cooperation and complexity, be
viewed as root causes of the Crisis in that they are stopping its proximate causes from
being successfully addressed---just as both are partly responsible for the development of
those problematic trends in the first place.
This is an important conclusion. The implication for Interventionists is that developing
social and other technologies for managing cooperation and complexity is at least as
important as developing material and social technologies for slowing or reversing the
momentous trends threatening global quality of life and, in the long term, quality
survival. And Reconstructionists too need to be aware that unless humans can make
considerable progress here, the post-bottleneck world they think we should be preparing
for will begin creeping towards the next overshoot crisis.
Here then is my starting point for thinking about the world’s converging problems---a
jostling set of hard-to-manage processes and lurking meta-problems which are
threatening global society with massive disorganisation in coming decades. I recognise
‘Wait-and-see’ Empiricism, ‘Noah’s Ark’ Reconstructionism and ‘Stop fiddling’
Interventionism as three “not unreasonable” what-to-do responses to the suggestion of a
dystopic future. While my own inclination is towards Reconstructionism, I do not think
it can be argued that one of these is “right’ and the others “wrong.”
However, while I find myself unable to recommend any step-by-step program for
confronting the Overshoot threat, I am keen to see the global community continuing to
search for and experiment with ways of avoiding a sharp drop in average quality of
life;369 or preparing for recovery from any such drop. Also, if Empiricists are not
concerned as yet about falling quality of life, they do have the obverse option of working
to raise global quality of life above current levels.
While this book has nothing to offer those who hate or those who have found the truth,
the tool it is offering people of goodwill who want to think constructively about the
For example, Buzaglo, J Global Commons and Common Sense, Real-world Economics
Review, No. 51 ( Accessed Dec 2
world’s converging problems is Ecohumanism, packaging it, metaphorically, as “lodestar
with travel-guide.”
Ecohumanism is a lodestar, a “light on the hill,” in that it offers a reference point against
which ongoing what-to-do decisions and choices can be checked, i.e. for which present
and future groups, what are the quality of life implications of this choice?
When you arrive in a strange country, having a travel-guide allows you to understand
what is happening around you, at various time-space scales, and how what you are seeing
got to be the way it is. It describes how the locals customarily behave and think. It
suggests what-to-do activities, along with places to perhaps avoid. In more general
terms, a good travel-guide primes your imagination with enough ideas to flesh out your
mental model for an itinerary and, as required, provide a string of intuitively-generated
what-to-do suggestions.
The Ecohumanist’s “travel-guide” to the “strange country” which is the Global Overshoot
Crisis is, similarly, suggestive-but-not-prescriptive. The story of this Crisis is the story of
the human ecosystem, interpreted here as the working out of complex evolutionary and
ecological processes going back to the beginning of the universe. Ecohumanism suggests
that this story can contribute to humanity’s short-term quality of life prospects and longterm-quality survival prospects in a variety of ways. At the risk of underplaying others,
let me finish by recapitulating several of these contributions that I consider to be
particularly important:
Ecohumanism provides a way of talking and thinking about the origins and tractability of
the world’s converging problems. It offers some hope that while we are confronted with
problems we don’t as yet know how to solve, we will, barring overwhelming setbacks,
continue to mature in our ability to provide ever-more people, now and into the indefinite
future with the opportunity to lead satisfying lives. But progress could be intermittent
and glacially slow. For the Ecohumanist, it is Ecawareness, the coherent exposition of
evolutionary and ecological relationships, which gives meaning to the world, i.e. confers
a feeling of knowing what is happening, what has been happening and why things are the
way they are.
Ecohumanism recognises that there is an inescapable need for intuitive judgement in the
management of complex systems. To this end, it yields insights and guidelines for
improving such judgements, e.g. guidelines for better managing the proximate and root
causes of the Global Overshoot Crisis. As a minimum, these become opening theses for
dialectic discussion.
Ecohumanism stands to strengthen and expand people’s feelings of belonging to one
human family; and their sense of identity---what it means to be human and a human. As
individuals and as a species, humans are going through life cycles. We have evolved to a
level of consciousness and understanding which knows that while life can be short or
long, fulfilling or cruel, there is much that we can do to make it better, for ourselves and
others, than it would otherwise be.

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