November 14, 2007


Joseph A. Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies is simultaneously a dense and gripping read, and incredibly thought-provoking. After noting that for 98 percent of humanity's sojourn on earth, we lived in small, discreet, simple bands, Tainter writes,

It has only been within the last 6000 years that something unusual has emerged: the hierarchical, organized, interdependent states that are the major reference for our contemporary political experience. Complex societies, once established, tend to expand and dominate... A dilemma arises from this: we today are familiar mainly with political forms that are an oddity of history, we think of these as normal, and we view as alien the majority of human experience. It is little surprise that collapse is viewed so fearfully.

6,000 years is a lot of years, but just two percent of the species' time on the planet. Is the ability to live in complex societies an evolved adaptation? (Julien Jaynes suggested that external stresses led to internal changes in the way our brains operate--one need not credit his theory to ask whether a subtle change in our mental make up did open the door to civilization). Obviously complex societies are an evolutionary adaptation that confer advantages (better, more abundant and more diverse food, law and order allowing better chance that children will reach adulthood, and so on), but do they also have drawbacks? For example, without writing, religious beliefs could be changed and adapted by each generation to meet their situations. The idea of a fixed text can be a maladaption. Of course, there's no such thing as a fixed text--the meaning of religious texts changes by the instant--but the illusion of a final, universal text and perpetual, fixed laws will lead to societies structured on fictions, tethered less and less to reality.

Posted by Ideofact at November 14, 2007 12:26 AM