Saturday, October 16, 2010

New Views on Humpty Dumpty and the Theory of Egg Repair

From Wired magazine, there is an interesting article on new views about the evolution of society. The latest thinking is that complex societies evolve slowly, step-wise, but can collapse quickly:
Societies come together slowly, but can fall apart quickly, say researchers who applied the tools of evolutionary biologists to an anthropological debate.

Using archaeological records and linguistic analyses rather than fossils and genes, they created an evolutionary tree of political forms once found in Pacific islands.

The study, published October 13 in Nature, was intended to illuminate an issue of contention among archaeologists, anthropologists and historians: whether societies become more complex in incremental steps or sudden bursts, and whether they dissolve in similar fashion.

“The evolution of complex societies since the end of the last ice age has long been a major topic of investigation and debate,” wrote researchers led by anthropologists Thomas Currie and Ruth Mace of University College, London. “These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests.”

According to the classic academic narrative of political evolution, post-ice age complexity — defined as increasing levels of social hierarchy — evolved slowly but surely, with mechanical predictability. First came egalitarian bands of closely-related people; then came larger but still-egalitarian tribes, with only informal leadership; these clustered into chiefdoms, with hereditary leaders; chiefdoms united into states, with bureaucracies and administrative offices.

To some scholars, however, this narrative is deterministic. They say that political evolution doesn’t proceed neatly from lower to higher complexity, but proceeds in bursts. To them, tribes, chiefdoms and states all represent distinct evolutionary trajectories rather than stages of a single progression. The critics also say that the tendency of societies to move from higher to lower complexity has been underestimated.


When they compared the resulting tree to trees generated by computational models of different anthropological narratives — linear and stepwise, varied and lurching — the researchers found a close match to the linear. Political complexity indeed grew slowly, bit by bit, with no sudden jumps from bands to chiefdoms or tribes to states.

“Political evolution, like biological evolution, tends to proceed through small steps rather than through major jumps in ‘design space,’” wrote Mace and Currie.

However, purely forward-marching models didn’t fit the data. There was evidence of societies marching backwards as well, and this didn’t follow the same step-by-step path. Societies could collapse.
Of course when you read this, you immediately start pondering your own civilization. Are we on a cusp and about to come smashing down? There is a lurid urge -- the urge for doomsday mongering -- that is a siren call pulling us to this view. But the sensible side of ourselves says: no, it is more likely we are just living through "normal" times and things will continue to stumble forward. This is very much like living in an earthquake zone. There is a constant lure to interpret everything as a sign that "this is the big one!", but your more sensible side says to you: earthquakes occur on a geological time scale, the likelihood that you will be gotten by "the big one" is tiny compared to the likelihood that you will go through life never seeing "the big one".

Despite the fact that we can probably discount the notion that Western civilization is about to collapse, there is a lesson to be learned from the above article: nothing is certain. It is too easy to be complacent about human accomplishments and the level of civilization achieved. Things do collapse. Everyone should be doing their bit to make sure they don't. And the most important step in doing that is to simply be aware that society can backslide. That helps put you on guard against the demagogues who would talk you into radical actions that could unglue society.

The great tragedy is that civilization is very much like Humpty Dumpty. Once he has his great fall, it is impossible to put all the pieces together again (at least not in a human's lifetime, it takes centuries to reclimb the ladder of civilization and reclaim a sense of advancement).

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