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.


  1. Another excellent piece....thank you !

  2. MEGACANCER ~ Exploring the pathology of industrial civilization

    It’s All About the Cheese

    1. That seems to be a fairly nihilistic philosophy, and I mean that as a compliment not a putdown. That's were my philosophy has been headed. I don't see why people see nihilism as something inherently bad, rather it's the holding on to these bizarre belief systems and intellectual hobby-horses that seems to the cause of most of the misery in the world. I see nihilism as far more comforting than most people's idea that they are a special snowflake destined for greatness and that the universe revolves around them. When you realize none of it matters, it gives you a certain level of objectivity and freedom I find comforting, not distressing. The distressing idea is that all of this matters - maybe I'm an existentialist?

      Yeah, understanding the role of that never-ending dopamine rush is really crucial. I look at how people their lives and I'm always just flabbergasted at the choices they make and the irrationality, unjustified optimism and post-hoc reasoning that drives most people daily and leads them to f*ck up their lives. To borrow from a comment I read on Reddit, a clear understanding these issues is like playing a video game on "cheat mode." Unfortunately, it doesn't allow you to quite the game, though :(.

    2. Megacancer is a project of James the microbiologist. Similar is fashion as to how you bring your professional angle to the discussion. I find him to be funny as hell actually. I too have been freed up some by adopting a view of nihilism along with a healthy dose of stoicism and absurdism. There are more than enough isims to go around and you can mix and match too. Western privilege has it's privileges.


  3. Wow, THANK YOU from the core of my being. I love your writing. Your blog is that rare outpost of sanity---my 1-2x a week here visiting you feed my mind and have really helped me hone my thinking on a number of subjects. I have largely agreed with your perspective from the start when I had first started reading you some three years ago. But you have helped me deepen and refine my perspective on the decline of America and the collapse of global civilization in a way that few others have done.

  4. "When the last glacial period ended, the climate changed and much of the earth's megafuna started to die off."

    Killed off.

    Humans responsible for demise of gigantic ancient mammals
    Early humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of a variety of species of giant beasts, new research has revealed

    1. That's an ongoing debate, which I sidestepped. I seems it goes back and forth, but the consensus seems to be both humans and climate played a role; it's just what percentage (50-50?, 10-90?)

    2. I was debating whether to bring this up too. Since it's up, I recommend Twilight of The Mammoths, by paleoecologist Paul Martin.

      Regardless, what a doozy of a post. Ecology is an amazing lens through which to view things, but dang, this particular piece triggers a sort of information overload for me. So much going on. It would be interesting to see an update on the original text 35 years later.

  5. That's some dark Hobbesian / Malthusian Social Darwinism there. Might I suggest some Kropotkin as an antidote...?

    1. It's nowhere near as grim as The Lucifer Principle: Besides, technically it's Mr. Colinvaux's words, not mine. But I do think the theories are good but incomplete.

  6. "The wealthy are the ones to be squeezed because the wealthy use the resources that the new crowds will want."

    I have to thank you for this article. You've provided me with a much clearer understanding of the origin of class warfare. I thought it was a top-down thing.

    I've thought till now that the ever-present fear of the rich of having to share with others (socialism, communism), or their never-ending worry that the poor are scheming to take their stuff, were both mainly the unjustified byproducts of greed.

    Not so, I see. The poor ARE always scheming to invade the "broad niches" where, I presume, they will do what they can to pull the ladder up after them. And, of course, wars are ignited by invasions.

    I do not, however, now place my sympathies with the besieged Rulers of Mankind. My working life has been post-Reagan, the class warfare has been quite intense, and I'd like to see the ruling class swing from lampposts for it.

    Were I to ascend to the broader niches (ho ho), I am confident that I would remain liberal and kind to others, and how would Colinvaux explain that? Am I just a localized and temporary aberration?

    1. This speaks more to the "extractive elites" versus "inclusive elites" contrast, which is another useful social construct (and one missing from this theory). Inclusive elites favor more open institutions where there is more social mobility. Extractive elites are the ones who, as you said, "pull up the ladder after them." Societies with inclusive elites and fair institutions tend to be the ones conducive to wealth development and higher average living standards.

      In Peter Turchin's concept (which I'll cover later on), as intra-elite competition becomes more intense due to what he calls "elite overproduction," they become more extractive and less inclusive, which he sees as a bellwether for state failure. It's clear that's what we've been witnessing in the U.S. since 1980 (as Turchin himself points out).

  7. The problem with this theory, from what's been described, is that it ignores the particularity of each niche (social organization.) It treats “niches” as materialist resources rather than sociological constructs. New niches can be built through more effective and efficient means of social organizations. Furthermore, certain niches can give rise to new niches which assist the former niche.

    The interplay of niches needs to be examined far more than a deterministic theory. He describes secular decline very well, but fails to describe how things 'develop.'

    The Dark Ages are the most interesting period to study, because there is three failed separate attempts to restore Europe. (1. Failure of the Goths. 2. Failure of the Franks. 3. Vikings screw shit up.) Things got better in the year 1000, and by alot.

    For example, the Catholic Church in the medieval era is perhaps the most misunderstood institution in mankind. What gave the Church power was its ability to precisely deal with the large group of 'peasants' whom Colinvaux writes off as being worthless.

    The Catholics were a religious charity to distribute healthcare, education, and manage diplomacy. Theoretically, their secular counterparts, the Nobility, could ride up and stab all the Christians (which they did.) We then assume that the only reason why this didn't happen was because the Nobility was too enamored with religion, but the reality isn't there. The Nobility had no choice but to concede power to the Church, because the Church itself was too essential for the Nobility Niche to exist. And here is were Colinvaux goes off the rails (IMO.)

    We fail to understand the Middle Ages because we assume that the rich landowners could've kept the status quo, when in reality, the Holy Roman Empire nearly collapsed without the Church managing "social welfare." The Nobles, as greedy as they were, lacked any real means to provide for public institutions offered in Anitquity. Nobles were just really rich people, and we know how really rich people act.

    So despite having all the soldiers they could ever want, when the monks packed up their wares and left to Paris, the Germanic propertied classes found themselves screwed. It wasn't "naive propaganda" that brought down the Emperor, but rather the necessity that the Nobility needed the Church to exist as a niche itself.

    Going back farther, this is one of the reasons why Charlamagne and other lords allied with the Church. The Church offered to take care of problems that the Nobility never really cared to bother to solve. Comparatively, the nobles of the Dark Ages (These would be Goths and Lombards) let Italy fall to absolute pieces because the function of the Emperor was absent, and the Church had also yet to fill that niche.

    1. Let's go farther back to even prove my point further.

      Who exactly funded the soldiers to fight off the Muslims at Tours? The Church. I'm not kidding, either. Without this "niche" that received charity from believers, the "other" niche of propertied landowners would have to pray Mecca instead.

      Islam fills a niche for their Secular Nobles that the Catholics also filled, but the interdependent relationship is different. Only decadent westerners take a dim view of collective charitable efforts, where-as people living in absolute desperation tend to understand the need for such acts.
      So to make matters even more controversial, niches that are useful compete against niches that aren’t useful. We have Inter-biome competition among the human species. This accounts for “progress” far more than people.
      The best part? You know what brought down the Church in the end? Government. Why? Because governments filled the role that the Church normally provided (Education/Healthcare/Diplomacy.)

      What I fear is that Colinvaux's explanations are inappropriately materialistic. IE: They take account far too much physical factors, like technology, resources, or genetics, and outright ignore sociological factors like finance, culture, or social organization.

      So when I read this, it reads like a princess asking to be rescued. We know of this secular decline, implicitly. Yet the question becomes how do we rearrange our niches so that we can accomdate a reasonable quality of life for us in the present? Considering the cultural biases of Late Western Thinkers, there is probably an overattachment to some sort of techno-wiz-bang solution that will make everything better. And since we cannot have this techno-wiz-bang solution, all is lost. 90% of "bright" thinkers cannot even consider the idea that technical inventions may not be the best idea.

      Let me go even farther.

      IRL. I've been sitting here, with a new perfectly feasible niche, that could save us all out of trouble, and would be a private alternative to 'traditional Capitalism.' It's a niche that exactly solves the function of low-skill labor in a world of high supply of Capital. Yet despite the fact that even my idea obeys GAAP and requires private money (like the Church,) it still isn't good enough.

      But you know why I'm ignored, "escapefromwisconsin?" Because I want to solve the problem by restructuring how we do finance, rather than a "techno-wiz-bang here's the new gadget" solution. I could deliver the moon but Westerners are unimpressed because it doesn't involve a new app. I speak from experience here.

      The problem started because men like Colinvaux (but mainly Popper) have outlawed the conception of sociology. Where-as Westerners used to be "normal" up until the Analytic Philosophy destroyed philosophy. A westerner living as recently as the 50's would understand what I am talking about. Our disease is actually pretty new.

      And so the INAPPROPRIATE emphasis of materialism and technicality is what is dooming Western Civilization. Colinvaux is fundamentally on to something big, but he cannot solve his own problem, again, because of this understated assumption.

      "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"

      Like an autist, there must be resources inputted, because there is only "one equation" to manage affairs. It's treating reality like a Chemistry problems. So many protons to make so many molecules.

      TL DR: This theory is a great start, but ignores the niche's are sociological constructs, rather than materialist ones.

      This top-tier Hegelian information, though. I will use this to synthesize something stronger.

    2. One last thing.

      "We could enlarge our niche at will using technology."

      This is the bias that makes our civilization obsolete. We invented Religion before we invented the Scientific Method. Sociology, not objectivity, was the prerequisite for agriculture. The organization of people is the growth of niches; technology is just the most powerful component for our growth.

      But it isn't the only one. And this distinction what distinguishes the solutions from our problems.

      Nobody knew how crops grew in Sumeria. But they still grew crops.

    3. It's interesting to note the contrast between higher-order niches in the landowning/military aristocracy in Western Europe, and those in the Church. That these two institutions were separate and distinct is a major factor in European social development. Francis Fukuyama refers to this concept as "Ceasaropapism," i.e. in may societies the political and religious authorities were one in the same, whereas in Europe they were separate. This turns out to be important. The countervailing power exercised by the Church was absent an equivalent in many other societies (Islam, India, China, Japan) as you point out, leading to different outcomes (see "The Origins of Political Order" by Fukuyama). This gets more into institutional study, which is relatively absent from Colinvaux's work (instead he prefers military history). You're right that institutional/sociological study is conspicuously absent--one reason why I think his theories, though sound, are limited. That's okay - he can't cover *all* the bases, after all.

      A marriage between ecological principles and institutional framework is the basis of Peter Turchin's Secular Cycles, which I hope to cover as a corollary to this series.

      The other side is looking at institutional development in a vacuum without taking into account resources, demographics, social instincts, technology, energy capture, geography, and so forth. This is a problem with purely institutional theories of history such as those of, for example, Douglass North and many other economists. Why do some institutions succeed and others fail? For many scholars, it boils down to, as Turchin put it, "shit happens." But clearly there's more to it than that, which is what makes the ecological study like this one so valuable.

    4. I think Colinvaux acknowledges this. He points out that middle and upper-middle class niches are sociological constructs, but they are ultimately created by our original trick of changing the *ecological* niche to suit us. As he says (see part two of this series), "Middle and upper-class niches are inventions. They are developments of our original trick of changing the primeval niche through agriculture and settlement" Exactly how each society creates niches and what they are is beyond the scope of his book, but his essential point is that in every society, niche space is essentially limited, and that new niches start empty and become crowded over time, leading to the historical processes he outlines - oppression, bureaucracy, trade, war, etc.

    5. Technology has been the leading driver for invention of new niches for the last few hundred years, intensifying obviously throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as we harnessed coal, electricity, chemistry, etc., and extracted natural resources all over the world.

      But--and this is key--technology creates thousands of new niches without threatening those already at the top. An institutional change, by contrast, would necessarily be different. That's why those in power always talk about "growing the pie", through some sort of (hypothetical) whiz-bang technology, as you say, because it allows them to tamp down social unrest without worrying about redistribution.

      Keep in mind, institutions are important, but they always grow fundamentally out of human social instincts, which we inherited from chimps, including those for power, status and control. So much analysis denies this and assumes that we are somehow rational actors who can collectively design institutions to bring about ideal outcomes through sufficient force of will. That's not the case. More often that not, better institutions (those that create more freedom, health, wealth, and so on) are consequences of deeper factors, and are probably more often arrived at through accident rather than design. Institutions are not passed down genetically, unlike social instincts, which is why they revert to the mean over time.

    6. So is it not biologically rational in some sense to prefer lower niches?
      The royalty are sort of like the megafauna with their high resource requirements; they rule the world until an asteroid wipes them out. Too many eggs in each basket. The mice and the cockroaches, though, will always be there.

  8. Great points. Look forward to reading more.

    It's good to especially understand that there isn't a 'hard' limit to what we can do. HOWEVER. Success and progress aren't constants nor are guaranteed. The possibility is there. But never the inevitability.


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