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


  1. Disruptive technology. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a bunch of angry, organized and motivated hackers could bring down the system if they wanted to. It would mean giving up their own power/advantage since there would no longer be any internet once they were done. Causing a couple of nuke power plant melt downs in the US would do it.

  2. Your first article inspired me to get Colinvaux's book from the library (interlibrary loan). It's a page-turner for sure, and a paradigm shift. His views have held up well over the last 35 years. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.


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