Sunday, January 31, 2016

Toynbee and the Ecological Hypothesis

Read part one.

Read part two.

Colinvaux tells us that Arnold Toynbee's monumental work, A Study of History, takes up over a foot of space on his bookshelf. He sees the same fundamental patterns at work in Toynbee's analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as in he does in his own ecological hypothesis. In this entry, I will enlist the help of this brief summary of Toynbee's encyclopedic work: Arnold Toynbee on Civilizations and Religions

In A Study of History, Toynbee charts the rise and fall of twenty-one distinct cultures he identifies*.  He distinguishes these civilizations based on their unique cultural, religious, spiritual, and artistic outlooks, and their economic, social, and political organizations. Toynbee attempts to identify a common pattern in the rise and fall of each of these civilizations.

He sees a harsh and unforgiving environment as the required crucible which presents certain challenges to a group of people. If these challenges are difficult enough, but not so harsh that they overwhelm a culture in its infancy, it forges a distinctive cultural "spirit" in that group of people. A society which overcomes the challenges presented to it formulates a distinctive mode of life:
A society, according to Toynbee, develops into a civilization when it is confronted with a challenge which it successfully meets in such a way as to lead it on to further challenges. The challenge may be a difficult climate, a new land, or a military confrontation (even being conquered). The challenge must not be so difficult as to be insurmountable or even so difficult that the society does not have sufficient human resources and energy to take on new challenges.
Rubbish, says Colinvaux; a better explanation is the ecological hypothesis.  A harsh and unforgiving environment doesn't make the "spirit" of a people stronger, it just means they run into ecological limits sooner due to population pressure. This pressure leads them to prey upon their immediate, weaker neighbors who have less dense populations, developing superior military techniques and discipline along the way. The harsh environment forces the people to be adaptable and hardy, and enforces internal social cohesion. The winners of these Darwinian conflicts inevitably expand, assimilating their neighbors through trade, conquest and colonization, exactly as Toynbee describes:
Civilizations arise in marginal lands; Toynbee says that people need the spiritual shock of a hard environment to give of their best. An ecologist is not surprised to learn that marginal lands foster aggressive civilizations, though less impressed by Toynbee's belief that the arousing of the spirit is what counts. It is in marginal lands that the pressure of rising numbers will be felt first, forcing expansionist zeal, the limits are reached sooner in marginal lands, habits must be changed sooner if want is to be avoided, and aggressive armies become an earlier requirement. Once the armies are made, the people of a marginal land only need a victim for their aggression, and a plump victim is always by definition waiting next door. (p. 98)
Toynbee describes a creative minority at the upper echelons of society whose activities and thought patterns animate the actions of the broad mass of people below them. The responses of the creative minority to challenges presented become worthy of emulation by the majority, and the society expands under the leadership of this creative minority:
Toynbee believes that the ideas and methods for meeting the challenges for a society come from a creative minority. The ideas and methods developed by the creative minority are copied by the majority. Thus there are two essential and separate steps in meeting a challenge: the generation of ideas and the imitation/adoption of those ideas by the majority. If either of those two processes ceases to function then the civilization breaks down.
Colinvaux would see such people as occupying the broad niches of a new society early on when the niches are relatively empty. According to Toynbee, this creative minority eventually hardens into a dominant minority who become ever more repressive over time. Colinvaux would say that it is when the niches at the top of society become filled that the creative minority ossifies into a "dominant minority, steadily becoming more oppressive over time due to increasing competition for niche space.

Toynbee claims that it is at this point that societies coalesce into what he describes as the dominant minority, an internal proletariat of citizens outside the ranks of the dominant minority but nevertheless members of that culture, and an external proletariat of people on the fringes of the society under its influence, but still distinct and separate from it.

The internal proletariat becomes ever more restless as opportunities dry up, and conflict ensues between the dominant majority and the internal proletariat as the former become more insular, repressive, and inward-looking. At this point, a society becomes increasingly destabilized, not from below, but from the ranks of the internal proletariat as the overproduction of elite aspirants necessarily means that upward mobility is limited. This leads a society-wide loss of faith in elites and social institutions, leading to what Toynbee terms a time of troubles:
If the creative minority fails to command the respect of the majority through the brilliance and rightness of their solutions to the problems and challenges of the society then the minority becomes merely a dominant minority. In the breakdown of a civilization the society splits into three parts: the dominant minority, the internal proletariat (the working masses which are part of the civilization) and the external proletariat (the masses which are influenced by the civilization but are not controlled by it.
Colinvaux would see this as the effects of crowding on the living standards of the upper classes of society, since they use the resources that the majority desires. As he describes, the people occupying the broad niches are the first to feel the effects of rising numbers, and they will become steadily more oppressive over time while establishing caste systems to assign people to the available narrow niches. The establishment of some sort of caste system leads to conflict between the frustrated, upwardly-mobile middle classes and the top--the dominant majority and the internal proletariat:
From then on, Toynbee's reconstruction is as predicted by the ecological hypothesis. There is, for a time, a "creative minority" of people whose example is willingly followed by the mass, but the "creative minority slowly changes to a repressive "dominant minority. The mass no longer emulates, becoming instead a sullen "internal proletariat." (pp. 98-99)
As Colinvaux describes, people will be driven from the land and into the cities as intensive agricultural techniques are employed to feed the growing numbers of people. This will cause the ranks of the internal proletariat to swell. There will also be broad discontent as wealth concentrates in the hands of the dominant minority:
From the time of troubles onward the population shifts within the state. There is a drift from the land as peasants are displaced in the interests of increased production...The surplus people of the countryside go to swell the ranks of Toynbee's "internal proletariat," already being bred in the cities. To these are added the inhabitants of conquered less-developed lands, driven in turn from their fields by civilized businessmen. Spent soldiers join them, their stipulated service over and their military usefulness gone.
So there always developed in the great cities of empires large and growing populations with very little to do except be house servants or formal slaves of that dominant minority which expanded to provide both the governors and the bureaucrats of the state. All could be given bread for a long time by improving the efficiency of agriculture, and by taking the new efficient method to the freshly conquered lands of the spreading empire, but each new advance of technology, or regiment, sends its own quota of exiles to the central city, there to join that breeding proletariat in, but not of, the culture of the times.  (pp. 100-102)
So far Toynbee's history goes as an ecologist would expect. Endless growing numbers both maintain poverty and give it such institutional form as slavery. The new technology which increases resources is never able to exceed the demands made upon it by ever more mouths, and its only real result is the closer herding of people, together with the growing bureaucracy needed to constrain them. Wars of conquest relieve matters, but only for a short time. When the victory has been truly great, then the numbers who can aspire and live in large niches is expanded for a while so that hope can flourish also. This is why conquering societies talk so much of freedom and liberty. But the increased living space must be filled quickly by the broad-niche "species" in society so that the hopes of succeeding generations must be curbed. Then the needs of an ever-growing proletariat must press upon even the large living space won by conquest. The only stability then is the short-lived one of people knowing their place. (p. 102)
The time of troubles is ultimately resolved by the absorption of the external proletariat into what Toynbee calls a universal state. The universal state is typically seen as the apotheosis of the civilization, but it is actually a sign of a civilization in its autumn years:
The disintegration of a civilization involves a time of troubles, such as a time of wars between the nations which are parts of the civilization. This time of troubles is followed by the establishment of a universal state, an empire. The existence of a universal state such as the Roman Empire is evidence that the civilization has broken down.
Colinvaux would see the establishment of a universal state as a logical response to the pressures of  crowding on the broader niches. The universal state is a way to create new, broad niche opportunities for the internal proletariat through colonization, trade, conquest and war. Indeed, we could say that all of these empires can be partially thought of as vast trading regimes with similar laws and institutions imposed from above by force to bring them about. Empires are necessary for vast trading regimes - The Roman Empire knitted together the Mediterranean region into one vast market; years later Genghis Khan's brutal rule would allow fruitful exchanges between Europe and China.

But once the universal state is established, even though the empire seems to be at its height, it is already decaying internally. The original culture has occupied distant lands; both the internal and external proletariats have expanded rapidly, and elites become increasingly isolated and take to warring among themselves and looting the underlying society, leading to a crisis of faith in institutions. Politicians become increasingly insular and self-serving, feathering their own nests while neglecting the common good. As people lose faith in the old order, they turn to new modes of life, often adopting new religions and cultural institutions in the process. The final sequence is:
Ultimately the universal state collapses and there follows an interregnum in which the internal proletariat creates a universal religion and the external proletariat becomes involved in a Volkerwanderung, a migration of peoples. 
The universal religion and its philosophy are usually borrowed from an alien civilization. The development of the new religion reflects an attempt by the people of the internal proletariat to escape the unbearable present by looking to the past, the future (utopias) and to other cultures for solutions. The religion eventually becomes the basis for the development of a new civilization. Religion amounts to a cultural glue which holds the civilization together. There is thus a close relationship between religions and civilizations.
Colinvaux describes it this way:
In the mechanisms of the times of trouble, which forge the internal proletariat and pave the way for the great captain and his armies, can be found some off the more revealing workings of ecological process. Not only do small crowded states war with each other, but capitalist business always emerges with all the social problems it brings in train. This is society trying to increase resources with improved technique, working to increase the size of the cake at home while its armies are fighting to increase it abroad...(p. 100)
But eventually, often after several generations of turmoil, a more able chieftain than the rest imposes his military will; the people gather thankfully behind the prospect of peace which he offers, yielding to him the instrument with which to establish an empire. The evolving civilization has culminated in a "universal state," and there may follow a protracted period, as under the Roman Empire, when an ordered society persists, the dominant minority remaining in charge, the mass constituting the "internal proletariat" consenting or collaborating in its bondage. But in the end the social order always decays. (p. 99)
The dominant minority is hard put to defend the boundaries of the empire against neighboring peoples and these evolve into a hostile alien force, the external proletariat. Finally, with the breakdown of order within, and the increasing hostility of the less disciplined but freer spirits from without, the empire crumbles leaving behind only traces of its culture and religion out of which those who have inherited its impoverished lands can begin again the process of invention and order.(p. 99)
Eventually, the means of war, colonies and trade expand to their greatest extent possible for the time. Caste systems are resisted by the restless and footloose masses clamoring for alternatives. The empire cannot accommodate them and disintegrates. Stagnation (stagflation) sets in. Population may finally start to decline, especially in crowded and filthy urban centers.

In the end, collapse is all but assured as the people inside the state turn on each other, leading to something that from outside looks like "moral decay." Social cohesion disintegrates and elite overproduction sews chaos:
But an empire always has an edge, at first diffuse and spreading, but later almost stationary. Its actual position is a function of contemporary technique in warfare, government and transport. Outside it live people whose kindred have been conquered, absorbed, oppressed, deported, or even slaughtered by soldiers of the civilized state. The survivors beyond the pale have learned something of the civilization's technique in fighting, and have also learned to lead mobile lives, so that they may avoid forays of the empire's soldiers...A whole new way of life, a new niche, has thus been developed in response to the pressure of the empire's people. Footloose, self-sufficient, partly nomadic, warlike; it is a way of life which often seems admirable to the imperial governors who confront it...Toynbee finds such people living on the boundaries of all the civilizations he studies, calls them the "external proletariat," admires them, and tells us that they have in common the writing of epic poetry. (pp. 102-103)
In Toynbee's account the war bands of the external proletariat are eventually to cut their way into the dying empire, hastening its fall...An external proletariat, forged from people who do not care to live in cities but who must run from a civilization's soldiers, is, with the knowledge of hindsight, a plausible outcome of the building of an empire...once the external proletariat has perfected the new way of life its own numbers will tend to rise, forcing it always to look for more resources both to safeguard children from want and to apportion among its younger sons. Trained to war by their way of life and equipped with some of the military techniques borrowed from the empire, their obvious expediency becomes armed raids across the borders. Their pressures on the empire must grow as their numbers rise, and an empire steadily weakened by the pressure of its own miserable masses finds itself ever more strongly attacked by armed young men from outside.(pp. 103-104)
Outside the gates of the civilization, a new culture is expanding, selectively adopting the successful methods of commerce and warfare developed by the dominant culture. The external proletariat are accustomed to living with less, so their birthrate is higher. They are more self-sufficient, not being able to rely upon the vast trading network forged by the dominant society's elites. As the dominant society's wealth concentrates in the hands of the sclerotic dominant majority, and the internal proletariat's numbers decline even as those of the external proletariat rise.

These trends culminate in a new civilization which arises out of the ashes of the old, either from outside it, or from within the crumbling society itself. New challenges are confronted, and a new creative minority emerges from the external proletariat. The cycle begins again.

This is similar to Ibn Khaldun's analysis of the thirteenth-century Maghreb, with nomadic peoples (the "external proletariat") who have been oppressed by the by the primary culture and having a greater sense of social solidarity and cohesion (asabiyah), eventually able to defeat their oppressors. Their greater sense of social cohesion allows them to conquer and assimilate the settled urbanized civilizations which have fallen into decay.

At the height of the empire, after a period of stability a collapse is all but assured in the twilight of a fading civilization:
The fading summer of each of Toynbee's civilizations passes with the muted mutter of dissension in thee big cities and ceaseless petty war at the frontier. But, at last, government crumbles at home, and war bands from outside swell over the disintegrating mass, Toynbee draws lessons of the spirit from these events, looking for the prime causes in the class war, the failing vigor of a privileged minority and the social injustice of commercial exploitation at home, contrasted with the ennobling experience of the external proletariat, which left it independent and tough.
Moral virtue then triumphs over moral decay and the lands of the empire are inherited by new peoples who proceed to build a new civilization on its ruins. No doubt these events do strange things to the human spirit, but their prime cause is not spiritual; it is an animal breeding strategy applied to human affairs. All of what Toynbee sees is predicted by the ecological hypothesis; all is the inevitable consequence of trying to provide a better life for ever increasing numbers of people. (p. 104)
Those were Toynbee's conclusions on the rise and fall of all the twenty-one major civilizations that he thought he could recognize from a long perusal of history. The creative minority, the successor dominant minority, the time of troubles which ushers in the succession, the internal proletariat, the emerging conqueror or great captain whom Toynbee sometimes calls a "saviour with a sword," the universal state that he builds, and the long autumn of order while the state endures as a stable thing with all knowing their place—are all events predicted by the ecological hypothesis.(pp. 99-100)
For example, in the case of ancient Rome, once expansion was no longer possible, declining social mobility, increasing poverty and despair, a loss of the tax base, a brutal police state, economic failure and stagnation, low growth, internecine warfare among elites, political corruption and sycophancy, futile, open-ended wars, and social decay followed. These are all symptomatic of a culture in decay. The culture can no longer rise to the challenges presented to it:
Yet, for all the peace and stability of the Antonine years, there was much about life in the empire which was far from admirable. There was a rigid caste system, with a social pyramid which grew ever steeper despite changes at the top as more provincial people were given Roman citizenship. The gap between rich and poor was desperately wide, and growing wider. Slaves could still be treated with a ferocity almost incomprehensible to people of our day. Growing masses of the urban poor lived without work, in disgusting tenements, on welfare payments of grain and entertained by horrible murders of prisoners and beasts in the public arenas built in every city for this necessary purpose.

Recession showed up as a chronic failure of tax revenue. Roman governors were always hard put to pay and equip their soldiers, and they had to meet even increasing expenses to keep the mass of the people in the city tenements from rebellion by giving them free food. In the last century they actually had to meet the expenses of a true police state, paying out a network of spies and informers...The emperors resorted to the Roman equivalent of printing money. They debased the coinage, mixing cheaper metal in gold and silver and declaring that the new coins had the same value as the old. Our modern governments push out paper and call it "wealth"; the Romans pushed out base metal and called it "wealth"; and the result was the same...Emperors tried wage and price controls, backing them up with brutal threats...but it did not work. They succeeded only in ruining the middle class. At the top of the social pyramid the depressed economy made government difficult. For the mass of people in the lower castes it made the chance for betterment hopeless. (pp. 156-158)
What was left to the Roman rulers was repression, and they learned to apply that solution very well. Indeed, repression was forced on them early, of course, as they enslaved their world with swords, javelins and terror. The old Roman Republic bequeathed to the Empire a state already based on slavery, repression and fear. Early reliance on social force actually helped bring about the very failure of technique which required that growing populations be held down by more force still, because a slave society of the massively poor is not likely to be technically ingenious—for why make a machine when there is cheap muscle to do the work? Romans came very close to real industry, needing, for instance, only the slightest advance to produce steam engines, but no Roman made the small tricks of invention necessary. The repressive social system stopped them by requiring slaves, and the social system itself had to be made more repressive still by default of invention. 
Social repression in the late empire tells us that the Roman possessions were crowded, as indeed they were. All the niche-space winnable by conquest, trade and slave-based industry had run out. If you were middle class or better, your children could only hope to live as well as you by elbowing someone else's children. This is real crowding in the ecological sense; all niche-spaces filled and the numbers still coming. Low population densities in parts of the Empire make no difference to this conclusion. (p. 166)
"Recession" is not really the right word to use for these failures of the Roman economy, however, because there was growth. The Romans seem never to have stopped building  roads and aqueducts and cities, nor did they fail to make weapons for armies which grew continually larger. But the growth was painfully slow. It was steady progress, not recession, even if slow enough to look like stagnation to us. But the slowness had the fatal consequence of never producing a surplus of capital to invest... (p. 158)
Then came strong-man rule. It was achieved by a series of military despots, men like Severus (that first emperor of African and possible Carthaginian descent), Diocletian and Constantine, who had a genius for the imposing of order by tyrannical force. They made a police state out of the empire. 
The smell of the police state comes down to us very clearly from the century preceding Constantine when Rome held its last sway in united government as one state under one ruler. Soldiers ruled; and feeding armies without payment became a first task of those living where the legions were stationed. Taxes increased and the bureaucracy became ever more complex. The social pyramid grew even steeper, developing into a caste system rigid perhaps beyond a real understanding. You risked your life if you spoke unconventional thoughts. Spies and informers were so prevalent that it was sometimes dangerous to talk in public at all. (p. 159)

Then came renewed troubles and the final, fatal wars. The Empire which had been built by force and together by force, was finally destroyed by force; real alien force brought in by armies from outside. The Empire from the time of its wealth, therefore, went through a stable century, wars of military adventurers, a triumph of despotism, and eventual subjugation by foreign foes. In outline, this history sounds very like the general predictions of the ecological hypothesis; in detail the fit seems even better. (pp. 159-160)
Sound familiar?

One element that is especially fascinating in both analyses is how rising numbers bring about a change in the spiritual outlook of a people. While some have speculated that increasing wealth was a cause of the emergence of moralizing religions, in Colinvaux's thesis it is the rising poverty caused by excess numbers which brought about the distinctive character of the Axial Age religions which gave people the coping skills to learn to live with increasing poverty, misery, and low class mobility.

Unlike the earlier dominant pantheons dedicated to the martial virtues of a confident, expanding, cohesive culture, these new religions all preached the same basic things: that life is full of suffering; the poor will always be with you; you should care for the sick, elderly and vulnerable; you should accept your lot in life with resignation and make the best of it; you will live in ease and comfort in the next life as opposed to this one; and so on. Such religions teach people how to be joyful in the face of despair.
In the end Toynbee notes that a world religion rises from the oppressed proletariat and persists long after the empire has fallen. He claims that all the major  religions of the world arose in this way; they started as religions of those subjugated in empires. Ours of the West was one, built out of conquered people desperate under the exactions of Roman military rule. Ecologists can easily understand the form these religions take. Much of the appeal of proletarian world religions lies in their counsel to the oppressed to endure. Nothing can be done; the poor are with us always; rely on your spiritual strength and make the best of things. For the crowded masses, to whom Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and their like appealed, there was, no hope for an improvement in the standard of life. People knew in their bones that the lives of their children would be no better than their own lives. They did not know that the reason for this was the swelling numbers of people who used up new resources as fast as they could be created, but they truly knew the outcome all the same. So, by the device of a new religion, crowded, poor, citified people have always turned to the plastic properties of the human spirit, learning to be happy with very little. People learn to live in very narrow niches when religion teaches, and world religion is but another expression of learning the necessities of life by the process of taboo.
It is fascinating to note that India, long the most crowded of civilizations with an extreme caste system, developed some of the most sophisticated systems of spiritual development ever seen. Eastern mystery cults emerged in the decaying Roman empire, with one of them--Christianity--emerging as the dominant cultural factor in post-Roman society. Islam replaced disparate nomadic tribal gods and preached peaceful submission and care for the poor. Buddhism taught people to cope with falling living standards by turning inward. All of them forbade usury and preached care for the poor and downtrodden, such as the giving of alms and Zakat. All of them also depersonalize nature and exalt man. Perhaps the dominance of these religions has much to do with their ability to help people cope with the suffering caused by the effects of overcrowding in a world where the population is expanding geometrically. Is it any wonder we see the rise of religious fundamentalism in places like the Middle East and the United States as the economy decays and the hope for a better life is thwarted for the majority of people?

It's interesting to view the above procession against what we normally conceive of as collapse. Collapse is often seen as a fairly linear process, but the above shows that there will be a variety of responses by the elites of society, which will prolong the inevitable. There are many methods that a society has at its disposal to keep itself propped up and to keep conflict from boiling over, and these are fairly predictable. The nature of these responses are described by both Toynbee and Colinvaux. It is also important to note that collapse is assured when the empire is at its height, not on the way up.

Yet the measures - free trade, migration, wars, new technology, and so on, are seen as permanent solution to problems, when in reality they are only stopgap measures employed by desperate societies in their autumn years. The kick-the-can measures only mean that the problems will eventually reconstitute themselves down the line in a more intense crisis. Eventually, a reckoning is due, but the process toward that resolution is jagged and complex, and often hard to discern against the noise of daily life.

* For the record, they are: Egyptaic, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumeric, Mayan, Yucatec & Mexic (fused to produce Central American), Hittite, Syriac, Babylonic, Iranic & Arabic (fused to produce Islamic), Far Eastern--Main Body, Far eastern--Japanese Offshoot, Indic, Hindu, Hellenic, Orthodox Christian--Main Body, Orthodox Christian--Russian Offshoot, and Western.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory of History - Review Part 2

Read part one.

Last time we saw that humans were able to take control of their ecological niche, altering it though artificial means and forcing more of the earth's net primary productivity to themselves and depriving it from other plants and animals (causing extinctions and ecological degradation which persists to this day). People began to eat lower down the food chain. We changed our primeval niche and adjusted our breeding strategy.

The effects of crowding led to the establishment of governments and occupational specialization into various social niches. These were partitioned into broad and narrow niches, with the people at the top occupying the broad niches, and the rest occupying the narrow ones. Those in the broad niches were able to live much in the way of their ice age ancestors had, while the rest were not so lucky. We use terms like wealth and poverty to denote these niches.

People's breeding strategy is based on their social niche. Those in narrow niches require much less resources, and hence breed more children. The children of those occupying broad niches demand more resources per capita, and hence there are less of them. Nevertheless, each couple raises the number of children it thinks it can afford. This leads to rising numbers overall, and more competition for spaces in the broad niches. This leads to social unrest. Thus the pressure of rising numbers is felt by the upper classes first, rather than the mass of poor people below, because they have the resources and lifestyle that people in the lower classes desire:
Ruling classes that feel themselves threatened by the social pressures of a rising population have only two  courses of action open to them. They can find more resources to provide good niches for more people or they can restrain the pressure on niche-space by a system of oppression. The most interesting ways of increasing the flow of resources include trade, colonies and war. These are always tried. The alternative, constraining the appetites of rising numbers by some system of force, is also always tried. It involves regimentation, bureaucracy, class, rationing and caste. 
(pp. 79-80)
Because the effects of crowding are felt in the ranks of the broader niches first, political revolutions tend to come from the ranks of the upwardly-mobile middle classes as their aspirations are frustrated. It is rarely instigated by the peasant classes, and even when it is, it is rarely successful. We see this throughout history. Even peasant revolutions which are successful are usually led by people from the ranks of the upper  or upper-middle classes, such as Maximilien Robespierre, George Washington, Simon Bolivar, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Middle and upper-class niches are inventions. They are developments of our original trick of changing the primeval niche through agriculture and settlement. When new niches are first invented, few people live in them; an ecologist would say the niches are "empty." We should expect, therefore, that many generations must pass before life in these new niches could be crowded. It must follow, then, that the social unrest, which is the prime indicator of crowding in these better niches, will always be long in coming. Lulls of social peace occur, particularly as a small inventive state begins the process of growth. Social unrest follows, always as a distinct episode This is why revolutions are revolutionary, a sudden upset of the old ways, as in France and Russia, or the upheaval of 1848 when kingdoms collapsed all over Europe. These events all followed technical change and rapid population growth, but were decades in the making (p.78)

When those in power must lose privilege because the numbers of their own kind rise, social unrest must follow. Social unrest, therefore, is a necessary consequence of changing the niche without changing the breeding strategy. Furthermore, the unrest will be a middle-class phenomenon and probably episodic. The troubles come from trying to pack in a few more of the relatively wealthy, not from packing in many more of the relatively poor.

I suggest it is axiomatic of human history that social upheavals, even revolutions, do not emerge from the ranks of the poor...They come from disaffected individuals of the middle classes, the people who experience real ecological crowding and who must compete for the right to live better than the mass...The episodic quality of these revolutions comes about because scattered disaffection alone may have little result. Individuals can wage a brief struggle for the niche of their parents, then accept defeat and sink to a narrower vocation in life. (pp. 76-77)
One way to cope with the surfeit of claimants to the upper-class niches over time is the establishment of a caste system, in which access to niches is limited by some sort of social convention, thus tamping down competition and social conflict. This could be blood relations, or it could by something else, such as wealth or ability. Colinvaux speculates that the extraordinary stability of certain Asian societies was due to long-standing caste systems. "It was the stability of neither change nor opportunity." (p. 83)

We think of caste systems as something from ancient India, but there are many varieties, even though they are often not perceived as such. In the ancient near East, slavery was hereditary, as was kingship. High priests were often a separate caste based on blood relations (such as the Levite tribe of Israel), and you couldn't become Pharaoh by working on the pyramids. The formidable Spartan warriors were made possible by the Helot slaves who made up the bulk of Spartan society, toiling away to produce the agricultural surplus and allowing specialization in warfare. Roman society divided into patricians and plebeians. In the societies of classical Greece and Rome, slaves made up to eighty percent of the population.

Medieval knights and lords were supported by serfs who were tied to the land they farmed. China had an imperial examination system whereby one could increase one's status through intensive study (but not become emperor). Many positions in British society could only be held by the aristocracy up through Victorian times and beyond (a military commission was bought, for example). Today, we might say that access to the broad niches is restricted by your family's wealth. Nearly every large, complex society in history has developed some sort of caste system. "Castes promote a stable society because they ration people to jobs, not all of which are the most desirable. They ease the pressures of crowding on the broad niches of the most cultured. Furthermore, castes are logical for an animal who maintained its primeval niche by learned taboo." (p. 81)
Castes have been described from many ancient societies--Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia, Fiji as well as India and Europe of past centuries. Castes are apparently ubiquitous. They ration resources among the populace when broad niches are not attainable by all. They raise and educate an individual to one of the many niches of society. (p. 84)
Caste systems must largely fail before universal education, which, at least in part, trains people to choose from a variety or vocations for which they might be prepared. But education does not remove the need for constraint; if caste no longer works to choose a niche, some other constraint has to be invented. In a market economy, the individual is allocated a niche by economic circumstance. In a socialist state the individual is allocated a niche by a government official. But people are still sent to a way of life that has to be, for most of them, less than the best. It is always crowded round the broader niches, and the more dense the population, the more crowded it will be. The defenders of a high way of life must push against the competition. Social oppression is an inevitable consequence of the continued rise of population. (emphasis in original) (pp. 84-85)
As described above, competition for prestige niche space leads to social oppression by the elites. As societies become more crowded, political repression must always follow. Societies with low population density have more freedom. As the effects of crowing become more acute, the governmental authorities impose ever more restrictions on behavior. It is societies with low population density and plentiful niche space which typically enshrine individual freedom and liberty as part of their highest ideals.

Societies that talk a good game about freedom and liberty have always been those where there were plenty of spots available in the more desirable niches to accommodate the aspirants to them. They tended to be growing, expanding societies, with plentiful resources and low population density. But crowding inevitably invites repression, as people occupying upper niches try to limit claimants to their positions. This leads to a repressive police state. Freedom and liberty go by the wayside, and democracy withers away, even though it is still honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Crowding in the upper ranks must produce a response in the government of society. We can expect that the descendants of those who once labored for the poor might well become inward looking, concerned only with the defense of their own privilege. Like poverty itself, a gradually repressive ruling class must be the inevitable consequence of indefinite population growth. (p.79)
This leads to the first broad strokes of Colinvaux's ecological theory of history:
After the original inventions of wealth and poverty, therefore, niche theory predicts:
  • That middle and upper classes will be the first to feel the pressures of crowding.
  • That ruling classes which previously were sympathetic to the mass will become selfish and oppressive.
  • That social troubles will be episodic rather than continuous.
  • That methods of allocating people to the more narrow niches will evolve. Caste systems are the most human [sic] of these methods, but capitalist economies and socialism have their equivalents.
  • That even under oppression, population will be stable only if the optimum family for the most miserable class is less than the needs of replacement.(p. 85)
Eventually social conflict becomes intolerable, and rising numbers cause societies to expand and lash out. Colinvaux describes three common methods of doing so - trade, colonization, and war.
When you run out of niche-space for the good life, you can always look for more somewhere else—through trade, through colonies and through aggressive war. We think of trade as "good," colonies and conquest as "not so good." Yet all three serve to tap the resources of other people's land. And they all need military hardware for success. (p. 85)
As societies seek to expand, they inevitably come into conflict. Colinvaux explicitly rejects the "great man" theory of history. Instead, he argues that the victorious society is always the one with the superior military technique. He uses numerous examples throughout history, from Egyptian war chariots, to the Macedonian phalanx, the Roman legion, the Iranian heavy cavalry, the steppe horse archer, the English longbow, the French massed infantry, to the Panzer divisions of World War Two and finally nuclear weapons. According to Colinvaux, the victorious society is always the one with the superior military technique.

Where do these techniques come from? Conflict zones are the crucibles for the development of these techniques. A great portion of the book is given over to military history to elaborate this point, and these vivid portions of the book are worth reading in their own right. Colinvaux argues that the conquests of Alexander the Great were due to the superior military technique of the Macedonian phalanx, which had been forged during centuries of incessant conflict between the numerous city-states of the Greek peninsula competing over a limited amount of land. Furthermore, Greek colonization and trade had led to the development of a superior navy, which increased the advantage (see below).

This is what allowed Alexander to defeat the Persians in battle. That Alexander was a brilliant military strategist was secondary to the fact that he had the superior military technique. Alexander's conquests are an example of a growing society expanding to take land from its neighbors, and hence acquiring niche space.

Colonization is another way of expanding niche space. The parent society sends out colonists to form children societies. The branch society often takes land from the natives by force. They can do this because they have developed superior military techniques in the crowded conditions of their parent societies. They also have superior ways of making a living that allow them to support more people at higher population densities.

Again, the ancient Greeks provide a perfect example as they spread out across the Mediterranean, forming colonies such as the city of Syracuse in Sicily.  The Phoenicians are another example, as they used trade to create new niches for their people around the Mediterranean, and founded colonies such as the city of Carthage on the coast of North Africa, which grew into a military power in its own right. Colonization and military conquest are on a continuum of seizing niche space from others:
True colonies represent the simplest form of land theft. You send out soldiers, occupy a piece of land and fill it with settlers. You carry on your own expanded way of life away from the parent city, not so much relieving congestion at home as providing the necessary opportunity for the increased numbers in each generation. When you have many colonies, you might fill in the gaps between and make a small nation-state. All colonization is aggression, but there is a gradient from making a small settlement to wholesale annexation of aggressive war. You use your superior weapons to take niche-space from others, by force. (p. 90)
The conflict between Rome and Carthage is illustrative. Rome came into conflict with the neighboring tribes of the Italian peninsula. Through centuries of warfare, they developed the Roman legion, anchored by severe discipline. Carthage, unable to expand into the interior of Africa due to geography, terraced the hills around the city and practiced an  intensive, highly productive agriculture, and turned outward to the sea in trade and colonization. They founded colonies all around the Mediterranean, including colonizing the Iberian Peninsula. This caused them to develop into a formidable naval power. "Trade is the simplest of the three ways to expand. You say where you are and fetch objects you want in ships." (p.85)

Colinvaux's insights on trade are especially interesting, especially given their prominent role in modern economics. According to him, trading regimes develop not to supply necessities to the parent country, but from a desire of the middle and upper-middle classes to expand niche space. Those who are frustrated with not enough niche space in their respective societies look outward to buccaneering trade to provide sufficient lifestyles for themselves by tapping the resources of other people's land. Aggressive, ambitious individuals who find their ambitions thwarted at home turn to adventurous trade to create new high-status niches, and have done so throughout history.

Trading regimes expand niche space not just for the traders themselves, but also for other people in the home society as well. People at home must make the articles for trade. New positions are created marketing and distributing the articles of trade. Trading societies are expansionary, which leads to higher living standards and population growth for such societies:
Our historians talk with approval of the "merchant adventurers," the people who sought a broader way of life through trade. For trade to work, there must be a market for imported commodities, but this market will result from the very increase in population which drives the better-off to trade. The way must always be open, therefore, for sons of the wealthy to find lives of freedom in importing objects that the masses want. We expect trade to develop not in the service of the hungry poor, but in the service of the aspiring middle class. The ecological hypothesis predicts trade to be important in a state only when there are too many people trained to better-class ways. But trade must also have an immediate effect on the opportunities open to all classes, because the parent society has to make the objects to be spent in trade.(emphasis in original)
In creating niche-space (jobs) for children of the wealthy, trade must also create jobs (niche-space) in the parent state. Because people must make things to sell outside, trade multiplies the niche-spaces available in the crowding state. First people can find a broad-niche life by engaging in trade, then other niche-spaces are made at home for those who supply the articles of trade. But even the stay-at-homes are getting part of their living from other people's land. It is quite wrong to think of those who stay at home as being supported by the homeland, because many dimensions of their niches are supplied by the foreign states who take their manufactures.(p. 86)
We've seen this before. There has always been a conflict between merchants and the aristocracy. In ancient Egypt and Rome, trading was strictly controlled by the state. Chinese merchants and traders were often checked by the aristocracy, who feared their power, and the Samurai in Japan controlled trade to an extreme extent.

Where trade did develop, it was wealthy, middle-class individuals denied from places in the aristocracy who were at the vanguard of trade. In Spain, Portugal, England and the Dutch Republic, it was wealthy middle-class individuals (the bourgeoisie), not the peasants, who established trading regimes. These led to prosperous societies at the expense of other cultures. Classical Liberalism can be seen as a debate between these two forces. It can be said that after the Glorious Revolution and the establishment of William or Orange on the throne (funded largely by British banks), the aristocracy decisively lost out to the merchant caste, sealing the fate of England. The conflicts between merchants and landowners would continue throughout the nineteenth century, as seen in the debate over the Corn Laws.

As trade grows, living standards increase for all. This causes population growth, causing trading regimes to become dependent upon trade over time to feed their growing populations. But--and this is important--expanding populations are a consequence of successful trade, not a cause of it.  Again, this seems counterintuitive:
After trade becomes commonplace, the hypothesis predicts a second and inevitable consequence: the mass of the people will become dependent on imports for their very subsistence, very likely even for their food. They do this because their numbers go on rising after trade has become important to the state, as well as before. This late-arriving portion of the population is dependent on imports for necessities. Once, therefore, a state begins seriously to trade, the rising numbers that trade makes possible become dependent on continuing the trade.
This analysis departs drastically from conventional wisdom about trade. We usually think of trading states, say modern England or Japan, as being driven to trade in order to feed their people. Modern politicians in those countries make speeches about "having to export in order to live," which leads people to think that the dense populations came first, and that some desperate necessity drove the crowded masses to resort to foreign commerce. But the ecological analysis denies this. The crowded masses are not a cause of trade, but a consequence of it. The only way in which crowding causes trade is through the pressure on the lives of the better off. Children of wealthy people engage in adventurous commerce to maintain their own standards of life. By doing so, they make it possible for more people to be raised in subsequent generations. These new people are the ones who are physically crowded. They are dependent on commerce, certainly,  but they only appears as a result of the commerce started by others.(p. 87)
Colinvaux's other insight about trade is that trading regimes must necessarily develop into military powers. This is because trade is dangerous: you are moving large amounts of goods through hostile territories where they can easily be seized by hostile governments or pirates. To counteract this, military techniques must be developed that are not only capable of projecting force, but also sacrificing as few soldiers as possible, since you are typically not fighting on your home turf. This leads to the development of powerful weapons and military techniques by trading regimes. We also see this throughout history, from the Phoenician trade and colonies, to the Greek and Carthaginian navies, to the Venetian Arsenal, to Islamic merchants, to the Spanish and Portuguese galleons, to the British Empire which ruled a quarter of the earth's surface at one point. These thasallocracies develop superior weapons and military techniques that allow them to dominate much larger populations with small amounts of people.
A civilized soldier employed by the merchants will be armored, for he fights not out of pleasure but from calculated necessity.Getting hurt is to be avoided. Weapons, tactics and discipline will reflect the organized life of his thriving city. The hypothesis predicts, therefore, that an emerging trading state will develop the best weapons and armor that their technology can produce; the city will take, as it were, a cost-effective attitude to the arts of war. (pp. 88-89)
Colinvaux's insights on trade, then, can be summarized by the next predictions of his ecological hypothesis:
We can add to the list of predictions of the ecological hypothesis:
  • That trade will develop as the niche-space of middle and upper classes becomes crowded.
  • That opportunities in manufacture increase as trade grows.
  • That the population rises and grows denser as a consequence of trade.
  • That the trading state acquires advanced weapons and an army. (p. 89)
As Roman society grew and prospered after the Carthaginian defeat, this led to rising numbers, and rising numbers led to an emptying out of the countryside. This leads to another of Colinvaux's conclusions--that rising numbers in a society will lead to an emptying out of the countryside and a crowding of people into cities. Again, this may seen counterintuitive. "Surely we need more food producers out on the land to produce enough to feed all the hungry mouths in the cities," is what you might be thinking.

Not so, says Colinvaux. The reason is because it allows the landscape to be farmed more intensively through large farms than by smaller ones. Throughout history the countryside has emptied out to feed growing cities ever since ancient Mesopotamia. This is because large farms worked by slaves producing monocrops for export leads to greater surpluses than small-scale subsistence farming. A concentration of wealth allows small farms to be brought up by bigger ones, eliminating niche spaces for farmers. They then head to the cities to be merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, soldiers, or simply layabouts. It is far easier for governments to feed urban masses centralized in a dense city than it is to feed a population dispersed throughout the countryside.

This emptying out of the countryside was remarked upon by numerous ancient Roman writers. Colinvaux argues that these writers looked at the empty countryside and abandoned small farms and concluded incorrectly that this was a consequence of the population shrinking, when it was, in fact, a sign of the population growing.

We know that the cities of ancient Rome were sustained by the massive shipments of grain from places like Egypt and North Africa, along with other commodities such as olive oil from Spain. The empire could only be sustained by a vast shipping network moving surpluses from sparsely-populated rural areas to feed the masses of idle, hungry citizens in the urban areas who could revolt at a moments notice. It's notable that years of incessant conflict between the patricians and plebeians in ancient Rome ceased after Augustus seized Egypt and shipped the surplus grain to Rome to placate the restless masses (bread and circuses).
...There is a drift from the land as peasants are displaced in the interests of increased production. This happened in ancient Greece and Rome no less than in the time of the enclosures in Tudor England, or in modern industrial states. The process can be seen in the development of every civilization. Feeding great numbers of people is more easily done if they are brought together in dense settlements; running the agriculture needed to supply those dense settlements is more efficient in the larger agricultural units of agribusiness. And the "drift from the land" is a predictable consequence of a dense population growing denser. It follows, therefore, that partial depopulation of the countryside results from population growth: the land looses [sic] people even as the total population climbs. It is easy to mistake this loss of people from the country districts as evidence of a population fall. Roman Pliny made this mistake and there are historians who have followed his errors to this day. But emptying of country districts must be a usual consequence of a population rise, not of a fall. The modern United States of America is an example.
In actual human practice, the first-order reason for driving peasants from the land was to enrich the landlords, but societies put up with the miserable injustice involved because the new ways were more productive; letting the landlords have their way yielded more food for the state, and if pushing even more people into the growing populations of the towns' displaced peasants, it at least promised bread for those growing populations. This is the argument of our "green revolution," an argument that has been used as long as there have been civilized states. "The people must be fed; farm the land efficiently for the benefit of dense settlements."(pp. 100-101)
As a society becomes wealthier through trade and conquest, the citizens of that society prosper. Since there are more niches available to them, their numbers invariably increase, since people still have the number of children they think they can afford. Rising living standards and hope mean rising populations, again more for the poor than for wealthy, since the wealthy demand more resources to raise their children and are accustomed to a higher standard of living. In fact, many of the highest upper-class patrician Roman families died out because they did not have enough offspring to sustain themselves. The "golden age" of Antonine emperors from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius did not have biological sons to sustain themselves:
Yet at the very top of the social heap it is possible that a few families were small enough to be below the replacement rate. An intriguing suggestion of this lies in the fact that none of the Antonine emperors had sons to succeed them except the last. This was a very fortunate circumstance for Rome, because these men then adopted sons to be their successors, choosing boys for their quality to be emperors themselves one day. It was probably this circumstance that gave Rome its precious hundred years of stable government in Antonine time. The good years ended when the wise Marcus Aurelius most unwisely left the Empire in the custody of a real but quite unfitted son, Commodus. (p. 163)
Associative mating, where rich people marry exclusively other rich people, consolidating wealth in the upper class niches, becomes more common as well. But despite it all, the numbers will keep on rising.

A final strategy after oppression, caste systems, colonization and foreign trade, is simply seizing the lands of your immediate neighbors by aggressive war. We saw this already with Alexander the Great seizing the neighboring lands of Egypt and Persia. The situation was different for the Romans.

Unlike the lands to the east which had older, more complex, settled civilizations and large, crowded, urbanized populations, the lands of the barbarians were sparsely populated due to the barbarian's ways of making a living, and thus relatively empty from the Romans' point of view. The barbarians still lived in small, tribal, village-based societies, just as the Romans had once done. They had low population density and hence much individual freedom as a consequence. In fact, Roman writers wrote admiringly of the rugged independence, ferociousness and courage of the Celtic and Germanic barbarians they encountered.

Nonetheless, the superior military techniques of the Roman military machine were pressed into service to seize their lands and expand the Empire. Roman industry fled across the Alps from the areas of the Mediterranean depleted of forests and topsoil, and the barbarians were displaced by vast latifundia dedicated to feeding the urban masses:
When numbers and aspirations for broad niches continue to grow beyond what can be accommodated by trade, then the only expedient left is outright theft. A growing city-state will certainly find itself in a world peopled by others less citified and less densely populated. Very likely much land will be full of wandering herdspeople or nomadic farmers, ways of life that not support dense populations. It may even happen that citified people will find lands still occupied by hunter gatherers, as when Europe first thrust itself into North America. More often the surrounding lands will be inhabited by people whose ways of life the city folk had left behind them some generations before. What is certain, however, is that the neighboring land is, by the standards of the city, underused and undersettled. The city-state will be surrounded by cultures whose technology of extracting niche-space from the land is inferior to its own. Taking over this land is an obvious thing to do.
The ecological hypothesis predicts, therefore, that a society will engage in land theft when its organization and aspirations show it to be better able to extract a living from the surrounding lands than the people already there. And it follows that a society which has reached this position also has, and knows it has, the better weapons.
Land theft means planting a colony or annexing a whole territory. Both processes must be resisted by the people already there. But those of the civilization who covet the land have an advanced technology of war, inevitably, by reason of the technology and trade which has made them a city. When they begin armed emigrations, whether for colonies or for empire, they cannot be stopped. This is why nations like Rome or Greece built such glittering victories.(PP. 89-90)
This is also likely to be self-defeating, as eventually the empire can no longer expand. This may be because of technological limitations, or by running up against inhospitable environments or hostile natives who can use the landscape to their advantage, as the Romans found in Germany. Also, what often happens is that the neighboring peoples adopt the military weapons and techniques of their more powerful neighbors, which leads to a bloody stalemate as the parent society no longer has the superior technique. He uses the example of the Roman empire versus the Germanic barbarians and Sassanid Persians.

The Persians were the first to deploy heavily-armored cavalry for use in warfare. They were also early adopters of horse-mounted archers who were able to fire while retreating--the so-called "Parthian shot." The Eastern Roman Empire adopted the Persian heavy cavalry techniques as the Byzantine cataphract, allowing it to hold onto its territory. Eventually, the heavy cavalry of the cataphract was adopted in turn by the barbarian Goths, who used it to defeat the Byzantines at Adrianople. The use of heavy cavalry spread throughout the barbarian tribes, and was the basis of the medieval knight, who dominated warfare until the adoption of gunpowder.

Eventually, the barbarian tribes who seized North Africa from the decaying Roman Empire were overrun by another outsider barbarian group--the newly united tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam. These mounted horsemen, accustomed to the techniques of banditry and raiding, swept out of the desert conquering everything until their path until they met the armored knights of Charles the Hammer in France and the Byzantine cataphracts of Leo in Turkey. These societies all expanded until they met others who had equal or superior military techniques to their own, whether invented or adopted. And they were all driven by expanding populations looking for niche space.
When the leading classes of a state have led their people through the stages of technical improvement in manufacture, a class hierarchy, trade and the colonial expropriation of land, they are coming to the end of the possibilities for finding more niche-spaces. Yet a society putting all these into effect is likely to be a buoyant one and its people are likely to be conditioned to the long success story. The breeding strategy, therefore, will certainly work to keep families relatively large. Each couple of the colonial state will choose its family in some hope, and this will be so in both parent city and daughter colony. This means that the succeeding generations will see more people still, not just starving poor but more particularly aspiring upper castes and classes. 
All that can now be done by the rulers to keep control is more of what has gone before, and this we must expect: more attempts at trade, more social ranking, more aggression. Aggression seems the most promising alternative.
Sending out a civilized army to take yet more undeveloped land is not only likely to succeed, but also exciting. And so niche theory suggests that a tide of aggression ought to flow out of the expanding state until a time comes when something stops the flood of armies; perhaps the distance of communications, perhaps reaching a boundary defended by some other army of almost comparable technique, perhaps a combination of both.
Aggression remains available as a solution to crowding in the more desirable niches only for as long as the weapons of the state are superior to the weapons of any people within reach. The aggressor state will always be both wealthy and wanting more wealth. Victory will always be achieved through superior technique...
We will find a similar pattern of events behind all the greater conquests of history. Aggressive conquest is to be expected whenever population and aspirations grow together. Up to now every advance of civilization has been accompanied by rising desires and rising numbers. Always this has resulted in aggressive war. Ecology's second social law may be written ''Aggressive war is caused by the continued growth of population in a relatively rich society." (emphasis in original) (PP. 91-93)
A crowded population with superior weapons and tactics seizes land from its neighbors. This creates more niche space. Aggressive wars become popular among the citizenry, and the society becomes militarized and warlike, lionizing their martial prowess and celebrating war and military victories. Aggressive war becomes a habit to nations that pursue it successfully. But in these victories is the seed of decay. The options are running out. Once the society is at its height, with plentiful niche space, all that is left is decline. New powers are on the horizon, and they have copied the techniques of the more successful societies, and perhaps even improved on them (the advantages of backwardness).

The society becomes sclerotic, and this leads to social conflict and decay. In the end, the Roman empire turned to incessant fighting and civil wars as disparate elites battled it out for niche space at the top, while the newcomer barbarians at the bottom of society, who required fewer resources than the native-born Romans, outbred them, even while adopting key elements of Roman culture. The empire was overrun by less dense, less sophisticated powers from outside as it lost a sense of common purpose. Eventually, population did decline, but only after the collapse.

Colinvaux dismisses the "spiritual/biological theories of history" which argue that a society goes into decline because it has a fixed lifespan just like an individual, or that societies decay because of  a sort of moral malaise, loss of spirit and vigor, or a failure to rise to certain challenges. Rather, it is the rise of population and an exhaustion of options for expanding niche space which leads to social conflict, and ultimately, collapse:
The combined expedients of better government, better technique, emigration and going to war can, of course, never produce more than a temporary relief from the pressures of demand. If numbers go on rising, the condition of the people, both leaders and led, will be as constrained as ever within a few generations at most. However large the empire built from underdeveloped lands, there has always been a finite limit set by logistics and geography. When all is full there is nowhere else to go.
Niche theory predicts, therefore, that a limit will be reached to the number of broader niches that can be found by ingenuity, trade and theft. And yet, the theory also predicts that the numbers desiring broad niches will continue to increase. The empire will become crowded for its upper classes. It is this phenomenon which is likely to be the cause of decay. Social unrest is now inevitable.
As the empire crowds, freedom of choice must be an early casualty. There has to be more government to allocate and control. Bureaucracy will be getting more complex, its practitioners more numerous. This is so inevitable a consequence of expansion that a minor ecological social law might be written, "All expansion causes bureaucracy."
But the bureaucrats cannot make more resources, they can only allocate what they have. Opportunity for betterment wanes, and initiative must wane with it. The army is no longer the pathway to a good life and will be neglected. After all, the only role soldiers have left is defense against distant barbarians. Once a fresh military power appears at the borders the empire must fall.
In the final days the empire may linger on if it can impose so stern a caste system that many families are held small by want. This is what some of the longer lasting civilizations such as Byzantium and India achieved. But this works only until other states catch up with the static weaponry of the moribund empire. Then comes destruction. The final set of predictions can be summarized, then, as:
  • Superior weapons will be used to expropriate land and to plant colonies.
  • All aggressive enterprises are undertaken with superior military technique and in a calculated manner.
  • Aggressive wars are launched by rich societies and come from the needs of the comparatively wealthy, not of the poor.
  • An elaborate bureaucracy and loss of freedom will always appear some generations after the establishment of empire by conquest.
  • Collapsing empires will have rigid caste hierarchies and stagnant military techniques.(PP. 93-94)
Colinvaux then compares his ecological theory of history against Toynbee's massive work, "A Study of History." He finds that it describes the observed historical pattern much better than Toynbee's own theories about spiritual decay, which Colinvaux sees as quasi-mystical not based in hard science.

Next: Toynbee and the Ecological Hypothesis

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory of History - Review

Based on a comment I read on a web site, I went to go find an old book on the historical process from 1980 called "The Fates of Nations" by Paul Colinvaux. In line with big historical narratives, the book presents a theory of history through a biological lens, taking ecological concerns into account. Emphasis mine unless noted otherwise.

Colinvaux begins by setting up two basic central concepts for the study of any organism, including people: niche and breeding strategy.

As Colinvaux describes it, a niche is the way an animal makes its living. The niche of a panda is eating shoots and leaves. The niche of a koala is eating Eucalyptus leaves. The niche of the lion is to hunt and eat large herbivores. The niche of the ruminant is to graze on grass. The niche of birds is to eat insects. And so on.

The breeding strategy is dependent upon the niche. Each animal has far more offspring than are necessary for reproduction. As Colinvaux puts it, each animal has the number of children they think they can afford. Since there is no coordination across members of a species, each individual produces the optimal number of offspring  that would ensure their genetic material is passed forward into the next generation in a sort of arms race. Thus there are always more offspring than are needed to replace the parents.

This means producing offspring well in excess of the resources available for that niche, leading to competition for the available niche space where those most able to get sustenance from their environment are the ones able to survive and reproduce. Sometimes mutations occur which give certain members of the species an advantage, a process known as natural selection. It should be noted that this process has no end goal or direction.

In any case, the competition is done by nature itself, which winnows down the excess offspring to suit the available niche. The niche itself, however, remains a fixed size.  
Producing more offspring has no effect on the size of the niche. When an animal lives in a fixed niche its population is fixed as well, no matter how vigorously the animal breeds." (p.53) "Each individual is progammed (sic) to thrust as many descendants as possible into the next generation, and it competition for niche space that winnows the surplus. (p. 52)
Some animals have a breeding strategy to produce large numbers of offspring, knowing that most will not survive (of course, they do not literally know this). Other animals produce fewer offspring but invest much more time and resources in raising them. Animals lower down the food chain need to produce a large amount of offspring; a "gambler" strategy where most offspring will end up feeding predators higher up the food chain, while animals higher up the food chain must necessarily produce fewer offspring. The breeding strategy is set by the niche. These are two interlocked concepts. Each animal breeds in line with its niche.

An animal's breeding strategy is designed to thrust enough offspring into the next generation to be able to compete for the available slots, but not so many that the survival of the entire brood  is threatened in the current generation. Thus, there is a sort of "Goldilocks" strategy that evolves over time based upon the niche that the animal occupies. Too few offspring and you will not secure a place in the next generation. Too many, and your children will not have enough current resources, also ensuring failure:
Having a few large young, and looking after them, is the best way to press your descendants into the populations of the future...But even for those animals with the prudent banking habits of the large-young gambit, there must still be a pressure to raise the greatest possible number of babies, producing a tendency to make the modest family hold just one youngster more. The  tendency is blocked or balanced by the danger that lies in trying for too large a family. If a couple tries for one youngster too many there may not be enough food to go round and the whole brood may be in jeopardy. One youngster too few, and your neighbors' descendants will swamp yours. One youngster too many, and you tend to lose whole line that wins will be the one which starts with exactly the right family size: the largest number of babies that can be reared on the food available, and not one baby more. There will, therefore, be an optimum family size for any species using the large-young gambit, and habits which result in this optimum family will be preserved by natural selection.
The human breeding strategy, then, is based on sexual habits that lead to a surplus of babies, balanced by patterns of behavior that reduce or halt this continued accretion by culling. The methods of culling are either deliberate (infanticide) or properties of social behavior (taboos) that probably serve a number of other functions as well. But, whether by infanticide or learned taboo, these methods of stemming the flood of babies to what is convenient all result from the use of intelligence. It is the purely human quality of a developed intelligence that allows our curious sexual appetite to be a useful part of our breeding strategy.
In any ecosystem, big, fierce animals that eat meat are always rare. This is because big, fierce predators by their nature get only a small portion of the earth's solar energy as it is passed down the food chain beginning with the primary producers which use the sun's energy directly by using photosynthesis, such as plants and algae. Only a fraction of the sun's energy is available to big, fierce predators. "Humans were rare as tigers are rare, because there is not much food to be won at the profession of big, fierce hunter." (p.53)

Humans evolved in a specific niche as well, just like every other animal. Humans evolved as big, fierce predators following herds of megafauna across the savanna while gathering a wide variety of plant materials, nuts, seeds, fruits, tubers, and so forth, along with the occasional seafood. With our omnivorous diet and use of tools and fire, we could pivot from different sources of sustenance as they became rare, thus acting as a sort of equalizer, keeping down the numbers of whatever species happened to be overabundant in an ecosystem and changing when they became rare. We have spent over ninety-five percent of our evolutionary history under these conditions.

We evolved primarily for Ice Age conditions, that is, humans are inherently creatures of the Ice Age. Far from being a harsh environment, it is the environment for which we are most ideally suited. While northern regions were colder, most humans were concentrated in the wide bands around the tropics, and the water locked up in glaciers meant that there was actually more land available in these areas, with plentiful prey. Savanna ecosystems covered more of the earths surface, and humans evolved as apex predators in these ecosystems. We are suited to small-scale social groups and low population density. When the last glacial period ended, the climate changed and much of the earth's megafuna started to die off. The savannas receded, and coastal areas disappeared (such as Beringia, the Sahul and Doggerland). Humans found their niche shrinking. They embarked upon a great experiment.

Humans, because they could manipulate their environment, broke free of their ecological niche. We could enlarge our niche at will using technology. We directed ever more of the earth's primary productivity to ourselves, starving it from other living things. We domesticated dogs for hunting. We domesticated herd animals and protected them from competing predators. We slashed and burned entire ecosystems using fire and replaced them with only the plants we wanted. We stored and redirected the flow of water on the earth's surface. We selectively bred only the plants and animals we desired, hijacking the process of natural selection. We artificially enlarged the food supply and made it more reliable. These were all ways of changing our niche.

Once we broke free of our niche, we broke free of the limitations on niche size imposed on us by that niche. While big, fierce animals are always rare, we began to become more common like social insects such as ants rather than apex predators. We ate lower on the food chain. Our flexible diets permitted this, along with our ability to pass things down through social learning and cooperate in large numbers. Our big brains, tools, and cooperation allowed us to access foodstuffs unavailable to other animals through processing, such as the small, dense packages of carbohydrates stored in plant seeds. We essentially became overnight herbivores instead of predators, something unheard of in evolution. With that came the negative health consequences we continue to see to this day.

When we invested in artificially changing the immediate ecosystem, it made sense to remain in one place rather than following the disappearing herds. This led to sendentism which, along with a more reliable food supply, led to population growth, and hence to crowding. Also, the arrival of soft foods such as grain and milk decreased weaning times and allowed for more children, changing the breeding strategy. Once you have made significant investments in your area, you get sedentism and private property. Once you have surpluses, you get inequality. And once you have population increase, you get crowding and social conflict.

Eating like an herbivore at the bottom of the food chain meant more people, but more people living unhealthy lives in drudgery, poverty, and misery. Instead of being just predators, man became both predator and prey. "The first farmers gave up the role of carnivores in the ecosystems of their times and took to herbivory as if they were cows or rodents. It was this habit of agriculture which let our numbers grow from the rarity of bears to something like the commonness of rabbits." (p.61)
Increasing the food supply by changing the niche gave our perfected breeding strategy a chance to show of what it was inherently capable. Unless we changed the breeding strategy, which we have never done, there would, inevitably, be a great increase in the number of people living. Each individual, remember, is programmed to try to thrust as many descendants as possible into the next generation, and it is competition for niche space that winnows the surplus. But, if more niche spaces can be made almost at will, there will be no more competition. All offspring raised to maturity will find a niche in which they can live and raise offspring of their own.  
The Darwinian breeding strategy of the animal that can create unlimited jobs for its offspring would lead to an unlimited number of survivors. Substitute the words "very large" for the word "unlimited" in the above sentence and we have one of the results of the great people-experiment of changing the niche without changing the breeding strategy: people have overrun the world.  
When we lived in a constant niche like all the other animals, there were essentially no population consequences of this perfected breeding strategy of ours. As the niche never changed, so the numbers of the people never changed. What has changed since those ancient times is not the breeding strategy, but the niche. We have learned to live not only as hunters or gatherers, but as farmers and industrialists as well. These are quite different ways of life from those of our ancestors, and they can provide for populations of quite different sizes. This is why our populations have grown since those early days: because the niche has changed. All of us still breed to press more of our descendants into the next generation than there is room for. In the old days this made no difference, because the job opportunities of niche never changed. When we started to change our niche, the opportunities for life went up, and our numbers rose accordingly.
Once we controlled our niche, this allowed for a wide a variety of experimentation with lifeways and living patterns leading to cultural evolution. Social learning became the primary means of passing down our ability to live in a certain niche. This also allowed us to colonize every area of the planet.
Original niche learning had little effect on our numbers, because every culture exploited similar varieties of foods. We were always hunters of gatherers. Ancient people learned their professions of life, just as the followers of modern professions learn theirs. It was this fact that made us ready for the dramatic changes of niche that were to come later. (p. 51)
The invention of institutions to cope with growing numbers is an ongoing process, continually unfolding, and the mismatch between our Ice Age habits and our modern circumstances is the underlying cause of many of social maladies we see today, from drug addiction, to teen pregnancy, to child abuse, to depression, to obesity.  
"We no longer live in the ancient human niche, but we still could, or rather, some small number of us could since there would not be room for many. It must, therefore, follow that we still possess the traits that equipped us for that ancient niche, even though we have turned our skills into living in quite different ways. We have invented and learned most of our new ways, so they must be wholly new. But some of the ancient adaptations that we did not have to learn are still with us." (p. 47)
As we came together in farming village-based societies, one's niche was no longer getting sustenance from our immediate environment, but rather one's role in then the superorganism known as society. New niches emerged such as farmer, herder, artisan, merchant, priest, king, soldier, slave. This gives rise to a new definition of niche. Normally it is how an animal gets its food and makes its living. But Colinvaux also uses it to describe how people make their living; a definition common today as well. We speak of niches such as professional, politician, bureaucrat, worker, laborer, criminal, and so forth.

Following ecology, Colinvaux dives social niches into broad niches and narrow niches. Broad niches are what we describe as wealth, and narrow niches are what we describe as poverty. Upon the rise of society, most people were crowded together in the lower, more undesirable narrow niches as slaves and primary food producers, toiling away for the benefit of the upper niches. However, the size of these niches changes over time based on conditions such as the number of people in the society, the available resources, and technological development. Many of these changes drive history, as he describes later on.

As Colinvaux describes, a niche is a way of making a living. In an example he provides, there are only so many spots for aeronautical engineers. That niche is finite; it cannot expand simply by producing more aeronautical engineers. It can only expand if there is more of a need for aeronautical engineers, such as a boom in the aerospace industry, or the discovery of new key technologies. The same thing goes for lawyers, doctors, senators, or any other profession. Just like animals who occupy an ecological niche, each societal niche is of a fixed size, and therefore if there are more competitors  than there are spaces available to them, social conflict must be the result:
We know that the number of people who can earn their living as aeronautical engineers is set by the job market for these highly specialized skills. The number of people actually filling the niche of aeronautical engineering cannot be altered by training more engineers in college but only by making the aircraft industry boom. An ecologist would say that niche-space determines the population of the species "aeronautical engineer," just as niche-space determines the number of squirrels. Similar arguments apply to all human professions, just as they apply to all kinds of animal niche. 
Western societies have recently tried a large-scale experiment in flooding niche-space when they expanded the university population, particularly the graduate schools...Universities have produced very large numbers of these presumptive professors, rather as if the squirrels had a very good year for raising young. But the number of professorships sets the opportunities for professing...Now surplus bearers of doctorates cannot accept the scholar's tenure, however cum laude their degrees...People have the quality, not shared by other animals, of changing their niches. Surplus squirrels always die, but surplus scholars, lawyers and aeronautical engineers take up other trades. Yet it must be remembered that all human professions have this in common with animal niches, that the number of individuals following each profession, or niche, is absolutely set by the conditions of their ways of life. Niche sets number. (pp28-29)
If you expand the candidates for a specific niche space without actually increasing the niche space available, all you do is increase the competition, which inevitably leads to more social conflict, not less, including oppressive governments and caste systems (see next post). More education does not magically call forth the need for more jobs. Thus, education, rather than being a silver-bullet solution for poverty, often leads to more problems than it solves. In places like Africa, there are already many more educated people than there are niches for them. Many of those educated poor leave, where they increase competition for niche space in wealthier societies, causing cultural clashes, and increasing competition for a limited number jobs:
When a country starts on mass education even before there is a rapid expansion of the niche-space through technology, as many in the Third World are doing now, the result must be a social crisis. The crisis is like the excess production of aeronautical engineers, which I described earlier, but on a national scale and for all the appetites of middle- or upper-class life. In a version of the old saying about more chiefs than Indians, it is a deliberate production of more chiefs than there are chief jobs available. The only escape for the surplus of the newly educated in one of these countries is emigration, if some more developed country will take you; the only escape for the government is repression of the new intelligentsia. The developing world is rich in examples of both these measures. (p. 79)
This is especially relevant given the economists' arguments for "more education" as the solution for the problems of the developing world, including both chronic poverty and overpopulation (see below).

Crowding also brought forth the need for governments, and those in these administrative and leadership roles occupied the most desirable niches in society. It also brought forth niches allowing  specialization in the art of violence, such as generals and soldiers. Because big-game hunting requires a high degree of specialization and leadership, we were already primed for those things during the Ice Age. But now, management, authority, and lifetime occupational specialization became permanent features of the human condition. We became specialized, as insects are specialized.
"Our primeval niche let us take kindly to government because the old social life involved divisions of labor. Hunting in groups needs collaboration and mutual support. Even herding, which ties people to beasts, requires some directed collaboration, and agriculture ties people to ground and food plant, so that government for any society more dense than a one-family plot is essential. The institution of government did away with the nightmare of people being reduced to perfectly equal peasanthood. But escape may be only for the fortunate few--the governors." (pp. 68-69)
As agricultural village societies became increasingly large, they eventually evolved into the first cities. Inside these dense, urbanized cultures, for the first time people came into daily contact with large numbers of unrelated strangers. New social institutions emerged, such as money and organized religion, as did new social roles. Eventually, city-states emerged as the new dominant social structure in the fertile river valleys, and these city-states were the incubators for crafts, writing, architecture and metalworking:
The organization that we call a "city-state" is the logical, indeed the inevitable, outcome of the invention of agriculture by an animal of social habits. Agriculture requires settlement. An unchanged breeding strategy makes that settlement dense. Government in a dense community requires specialization. And a dense settlement containing both rulers and ruled must inevitably divide up the country into land to live on and land to farm. The city-state has emerged, along with a rationale that requires people within it to have different specialties—that is, different niches...The need for government in dense communities did more than just save a few individuals from the worst consequences of our change of niche. It also allowed further increases in the carrying capacity. Government could ration, distribute and hoard. Surplus and deficit could be balanced from place to place, and from season to season, ensuring an even flow of the necessities for life, making the luxury of large families the more safely enjoyed.
The people who occupied the upper niches in society, such as government, religious and military authorities, were able to live much in the same way as their Ice Age ancestors had. They had access to a wide variety of resources such as foodstuffs (especially protein), sex, durable goods, artistic pursuits, leisure time, and lives of relative luxury, ease and comfort. Their lifestyles allowed for variety in their daily routine and consumption habits of things like food, drink, and sexual partners:
"The immense flux of resources required for each niche-space of wealth can best be realized by reflecting on just one propensity of the wealthy, the propensity to choose. The wealthy seek variety, both in daily activity and in real opportunity. But any freedom of choice must mean that, for everything done, there be something left undone. Freedom and wealth, which are to some extent linked, require very many resources per niche-space. The wealthy, and the truly free, therefore, must be rare." (p.71)
By contrast, life was much worse for the vast majority of peasants who lived under the whip of an overseer, having to cope with overcrowding, substandard diets, malnutrition, backbreaking, routine work, celibacy or monogamy, and disease. This led to the permanent institution of wealth and poverty, where the wealthy can command ten, fifty, a hundred, or even a thousand times more than the average person; something impossible in a hunter-gatherer society:
The organizers in a city-state, be they governors, bureaucrats, businessmen or priests, led active, wide ranging lives that needed many resources; an ecologist would say that they had a broad niche. The mass of the people needed much less, little more, in fact, than would be wanted by that ideal agricultural peasantry; they had a narrow niche. The broad niches of the governors meant wealth, but then the narrow niches of the mass could be given a new name, "poverty." "Wealth" and "poverty" are but names we give to two extreme kinds of ecological niche. The niche of wealth demands more resources per individual than does the niche of poverty. Wealth even takes more food, for a wealthy person actually eats more calories than does a poor person. Even more importantly, the wealthy person tends to eat higher on a food chain, requiring more meat. This means that any patch of real estate probably can feed between ten and a hundred times as many of the very poor as of the very rich. How many rich people there can be, therefore, depends on how many people are trying to get their living from the land; it depends on population density...Wealth and poverty are both inventions of agriculture-based humanity, but poverty is more of an invention than wealth.  We make people poor by denying them the types of food, activities and space that were consumed in the primeval human niche, whereas the wealthy retain many of these old assets.
Because people were not naturally happy occupying the narrow niches, competition for the upper niches became intense. But because it takes more resources to make a broad niche, however, there are necessarily less broad niches than there are narrow niches, and hence less freedom:
We must think that our most perfect evolutionary triumph would be a society of agricultural peasants, sedentary, marvelously numerous, living in a landscape set the very minimum of animal food, freed from the very minimum of animal food, freed from the threats of predatory or competing animals, and having a family size again brought down to meet the needs of replacement and set by the fact that there should be no food to rear more than two or three children per couple. Peasants such as these would be the ecological apotheosis of humanity...  
But people have not been able to change the human niche so completely as required by this triumphant evolutionary nightmare. They have not wanted to be the perfect food-raising food-consuming peasant. Many individuals resist peasanthood very strongly indeed, trying to preserve more ancient ways of life and even wanting to do things that the ice-age peoples could not do; they want to go adventuring like a hunter, to paint, to craft, to make machines...
Our breeding strategy, however, remained unchanged from that of our ice-age ancestors: each couple continued to raise the number of children they thought they could afford. Colinvaux's key insight is that the poor will always have more children than the rich. This is because the children of the rich require more resources to raise than those of the poor. The rich require a lot of resources in terms of food, shelter, money, education, assets, et cetera, to raise children in the manner to which they are accustomed. By contrast, for poor people, raising children requires only minimal resources. There are almost always enough resources for another starving peasant, but not for another prince. "Each human way of life will have its own characteristic size of family." (p.41)
Because it takes scant resources to raise a child in poverty, the hopelessly poor will opt for large families. They are doing their Darwinian thing, estimating the number of children that can be raised to compete for niche-spaces in their world of chronic poverty and then arranging to have families of this calculated size. The wealthy, on the other hand, must plan for each child to be able to compete for niche-space in a world of wealth...When the Darwinian cost-accounting is done in a wealthy family, the stark fact is that the certain and successful rearing of a child, fully equipped to become itself a parent in its parents' world, requires a very heavy investment. Wealthy parents, like poor parents, seek to raise the largest number of children that they can afford, for this is their animal breeding strategy which has never changed. But wealthy people cannot afford very many children, despite their wealth. (p.42)
Across a whole society, breeding strategy is based upon hope, specifically the hope that a person's children will have a higher living standard than their own. This means that growing, prosperous societies will inevitably have growing populations, Times of plenty lead to a rising populations, and hence more competition for niche spaces, especially for the broad niches. Thus, rising numbers lead to rising aspirations.

Colinvaux pours cold water all over the idea of the "demographic transition." This is  the observation, scientifically unsupported, that families in wealthier societies tend to have fewer children on average than poorer ones. This is explained by the above. In richer societies, the option of occupying a relatively broad niche will still cause people to have fewer children than people who do not have that option. But there will continue to be a surplus of children. The only reason that the surplus is slightly smaller is because wealthier families demand more resources for each individual child than do poorer ones. Since rich children command more resources per capita than poor children anyway, relying on increasing wealth to save the environment is a strategy condemned to failure:
And yet a noisy propaganda is about which denies that rising populations cause poverty. We are told by most eminent politicians and international experts that the rising numbers, far from being a cause of poverty, are in fact a result of poverty..."Poverty is the cause of large families" they say. "Do away with poverty—by foreign aid or by giving to charity—and the population problem will take care of itself." It is an appealing, comforting hope; but it is false. 
People who lean on this propaganda are deluded by the very true observation that the moderately affluent have smaller families than the comparatively poor. They say that giving poor villagers of the Third World the money and education of someone living in a French or American suburb would result in their having smaller families, as indeed it would; provided that the new affluence was safe for a generation or more. The poor villagers would pass through a "demographic transition," as I explained before. Affluent couples cannot afford as many children as can poor couples because many resources are required to raise a child to affluence...But this does not mean that poverty causes population growth; it is the growth that causes poverty, and the affluent West can lose its affluence by packing more people in. Poverty is growing in inner cities already. 
It can happen, and often does, that populations grow more quickly in poor countries. But this does mean that populations do not grow in wealthier states as well. In fact, we know that they do...What matters is the eventual population density. It is the number of people per unit of resource that determines the size of a niche and, hence, what we call a standard of life. Coping with more people in each succeeding generation is the ultimate drive for technical innovation...But poverty will always be present, because any large increase in resources produced by new technology will be taken up within a few generations by the provision of more poor people. (pp. 73-74)
Only chronic poverty and lower living standards can permanently slow long-term population growth:
Smaller families for the rich than for the poor are explained and predicted by the ecological analysis of the human breeding strategy, as we have seen. But this does not mean that numbers in a rich society will not rise, only that they will rise more slowly. Breeding strategy still ensures that each couple will raise the largest number of children it can afford and, under most conditions of wealth, this is likely to be more than enough to replace the parents. Making the poor wealthy will slow the rate at which children are raised, giving us more time to anticipate or plan the historical happenings that their crowding will bring, but it can never stop the children coming in excess supply. (pp.42- 43)
Neither will birth control work. Since people modify their breeding strategy based on their niche, people in narrow niches will continue to have the optimal number of children for that niche. Access to birth control is still dependent on them actually using it, which is solely a matter of individual choice, absent some sort of compulsion. And those at the lowest niches of society with the fewest resources need to have the largest number of children:
It is essential to realize that people of poor countries have their large families from choice. The poor themselves will tell you that they need to have children to look after them in their old age, or to have sons to go out to work when they are ten years old, or to have daughters whose marriage will bind families together. They might even say that children are a "comfort"; that they like children. These are but ways of saying that they are looking to the number of children decreed by their way of life, or the number demanded for them by the workings of the human breeding strategy. In either language, the poor have large families because they want large families. Providing the poor with birth-control devices will not result in fewer children.
Only desperate poverty has been shown historically to slow the rate of population growth:
But it is still possible for the human breeding strategy to cause population losses, as well as population gains. This will happen when a community is reduced to such despair that the average opinion of the ideal size of family puts it close to zero. Or, if hope yet allows some couples to start families, then the conditions of the people are so desperate that they cannot succeed. A single generation of desperation can remove a whole community for good. It is to this possibility of near total failure of the breeding effort, not to massacres of adults, that we must look for the decline of populations in history...(p. 44)
This leads to another of Colinvaux's critical insights, which is that people in the more desirable niches are the first to feel the effects of crowding. They also feel the effects of crowding more acutely, since they are accustomed to a higher standard living than the masses. This is counterintuitive. We naturally think crowding is felt more acutely by the people at the bottom, and that they are eventually are so staved of resources that they are driven to desperation and revolt. 

Not so, says Colinvaux. Rather, the swelling ranks of poor put pressure on the wealthy, who will turn to various measures to cope with it. It is the attempt to crowd ever more people into the broader niches which is the primary driver of attempts to expand the ranks of those niches by various means such as war, colonization, trade and technological advance; or ways to restrict access to them such as caste systems and repression."Politicians nowadays talk of "the population problem" as if it were mainly a worry for poor nations and the underprivileged, but this is wrong. The wealthy are the ones to be squeezed because the wealthy use the resources that the new crowds will want." (p76):
 A broad niche requires numerous resources; an expansive way of life can be provided for only relatively few. But more young people equipped to live in an upper-class way will keep coming in succeeding generations as our breeding strategy manufactures more people. Niche-theory predicts, therefore, that rising numbers will always cause trouble for the wealthy before they cause trouble for the poor.
Technology is another way to grow the available niche space, but this strategy was necessarily limited in the ancient world. Since technology changed fairly slowly from generation to generation, population growth was necessarily faster than technological growth. Except during brief periods of either low population growth or rapid technological advance (such as the last one-hundred and fifty years), rising numbers have always led to more poverty:
Every couple, rich and poor alike, continued to rear as many children as it could afford. Numbers always rose. The extra resources wrung from the land by cleverness and industry always went to supporting more people at the old levels. As fast as a few individuals could be raised out of poverty, as fast as the actual numbers of people living richer lives increased, so also more babies were born into the world to swell the actual numbers of the poor. 
Population growth is a geometric, or exponential, process. The cleverest of people, and the most enlightened of governments, have never increased the flow of resources exponentially at an even faster rate than the growth in demand represented by the extra mouths, except for short periods of rapid technical advance. Industrial societies of the West are experiencing one of those short periods of rapid advance at the moment, and there have been others in the past. But always a plateau has been reached. It must be so. The rate of increasing production falls but the rate of population growth does not fall. Then poverty must get worse and more visible, for not only do the numbers of people who must be poor increase, but each poor family finds itself poorer and poorer....Ecology's first social law may be written, ''All poverty is caused by the continued growth of population." (italics in original)
Rising numbers inevitably cause more poverty, and more pressure on the higher niches. This leads to people in the higher niches taking various measures. To cope with an excess of aspirants to the broader niches, elites of various societies have turned to a variety of strategies, and it is these strategies which drive the historical process:
For the early stages of the growth of a civilization, therefore, niche theory predicts life in settlements, continually rising numbers, a ruling class living in broad niches that include many dimensions of the primeval human niche, technical innovation from those who have broad niches already, the persistence of poverty, and an actual increase in the numbers of the poor. 
Ruling classes that feel themselves threatened by the social pressures of a rising population have only two courses of action open to them. They can find more resources to provide good niches for more people or they can restrain the pressure on niche-space by a system of oppression. The most interesting ways of increasing the flow of resources include trade, colonies and war. These are always tried. The alternative, constraining the appetites of rising numbers by some system of force, is also always tried. It involves regimentation, bureaucracy, class, rationing and caste.
Thus, it is population growth caused by the various breeding strategies, and the effects of crowding on the broader niches which provides the driving force and distinctive episodes in the historical process, from the wars of conquest, to the colonization of far-off lands, to the wholesale abandonment of the countryside, to the establishment of long-distance trade, to the rise of surveillance states. In the following chapters, Colinvaux lays out his theory of why history happens according to the ecological principles described above:
Behind all the great climactic struggles of history we will find symptoms of an expanding population. Whenever people have been ingenious so that the quality of their lives has improved they have let their numbers rise. The demand for more resources for the better life has always been more than the prevailing political systems could provide. And the grand themes of history have been the result: repressions, revolutions, liberations and always, in the end, aggressive war. 
Perhaps little wars and petty repressions can often be explained as being caused by no more than human wickedness and animal passions, as various social and biological writers have argued. But all the truly great wars of history, those that ended with shifts of peoples  and the remaking of maps, were caused by increases in the numbers of people and associated increases in demand. We can examine the wars, the growths, and the falls of civilizations from ecological principles which describe how resources must be divided between people and which show consequences of changing the numbers of those people. From this study a predictive theory for the fates of civilizations, including our own, will emerge. (pp. 23-24)
Next: Why History Happens.