The rise and crash of civilizations

By Razib Khan | October 15, 2010 1:11 am

480px-Montagem_BrasíliaOne of the questions of interest in the study of the evolution of culture is whether there is a direction in history in terms of complexity. As I have noted before in the pre-modern era many felt that the direction of history was of decline. That is, the ancients were wise and subtle beyond compare and comprehension. In contrast, in our era of rapid and boisterous technological innovation and economic growth we tend toward a “Whiggish” model, where the future is gleaming with potential and possibility. But we live in a peculiar time. The reality is that for most of history for most people there was very little change from generation to generation. Malthus reigned supreme. Values were timeless, and quality of life was unchanging.

There were exceptions. Theodore of Tarsus was born in the year 602, in Cilicia in southern Turkey, a subject of the Byzantine Emperor Phocas. It is Phocas to whom we can offer thanks for the preservation of the Pantheon of Rome down to the modern age (he sponsored its transformation into a Christian church). In his youth Theodore became a subject of the Sassanid Persians, who ruled Cilicia for a time before it was brought back under Byzantine rule thanks to the efforts of Heraclius. Eventually in adulthood he fled the armies of the Muslim Arabs, who conquered Cilicia, and relocated to Constantinople and then Rome. After Rome Theodore eventually settled in to a position as Archbishop of Canterbury, amongst the newly converted English. Theodore of Tarsus lived life at a “hinge of history,” when much changed in understanding of how the world was ordered (though to be honest there is a great deal of evidence that many Christians viewed Islam and the Arabs as but a momentary interruption until the 8th century). But he was very much an exception. In his longevity, his position as a literate man of power, and the radical shifts in the elite culture of his time. In the year of Theodore’s birth the English were a pagan people, and the Near East was staunchly Christian. At his death the English were a stoutly Christian people, and the Near East was crystallizing into what we now term the Islamic World.

ResearchBlogging.orgTheodore gives us a specific personalized window into the coarse general dynamics through which history flows. History is a dynamic of people, but also operates upon people. A new paper in Nature illustrates the insights we may gain from abstraction and formalization of these dynamics. It is a lens upon history which is more crisply analytic and potentially more robust in inferential power, though of course far less rich in gripping narrative. Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific:

There is disagreement about whether human political evolution has proceeded through a sequence of incremental increases in complexity, or whether larger, non-sequential increases have occurred. The extent to which societies have decreased in complexity is also unclear. These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests. We evaluated six competing models of political evolution in Austronesian-speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Here we show that in the best-fitting model political complexity rises and falls in a sequence of small steps. This is closely followed by another model in which increases are sequential but decreases can be either sequential or in bigger drops. The results indicate that large, non-sequential jumps in political complexity have not occurred during the evolutionary history of these societies. This suggests that, despite the numerous contingent pathways of human history, there are regularities in cultural evolution that can be detected using computational phylogenetic methods.

800px-Gate_to_Prambanan_complexThe guts of the paper are really in the supplements. The short of it is that the authors used a phylogenetic framework and statistical methods to smoke out which models were the best fit for how patterns of social complexity mapped onto the branches of the Austronesian language family. The Austronesians are a group whose ethnognesis is understood to a great extent, and, who have expanded across a wide variety of ecologies in the recent past. They range from Madagascar to Easter Island, two points between which the distance is shorter traversing Africa and South America, rather than the Indian and Pacific oceans. In terms of complexity you also have singular groups situated upon Polynesian atolls, all the way up to the complex civilizations of the Javanese, whose polities sometimes spanned the whole breadth of the modern Indonesian archipelago.

There are four rough types of societies being analyzed in terms of their category of complexity. You can see them in figure 3, as well as the stylized model of shifts from one level of social complexity to another:

complex1

“Acephalous” means that there’s no level of leadership above the local one. So the clan chief presumably does not report to a superior. “Simple chiefdom” means that there’s a level above the clan chief. “Complex chiefdom” has another level above again. And the state means that there’s a subsequent level, or more.

complex2As noted in the abstract they found that a step-wise incremental move up and down the levels of complexity best explained the patterns across Austronesian peoples which we see today. That is, complex ancestral societies may have devolved toward simpler organizational patterns, and simple ancestral societies may have given rise to complex ones. This is the “unilinear” pattern; what goes up does so gradually, and what goes down does so gradually. Interestingly this model shows that history can go in cycles. Empires can rise and fall. Rome and Angkor are not aberrations. But the second most supported model was a “relaxed unilinear” one, whereby societies still accrue complexity in a gradual step-wise fashion, but they may regress catastrophically. In other words, they can potentially go from being of relatively large scale to much smaller scale, atomizing and shattering.  I believe that this is probably the more interesting finding. It is not surprising that societies change in complexity in an ordered fashion, but that complex systems are fragile and can lose institutional structures in a cascade would have big theoretical implications.

Obviously this sort of study on one set of societies has limitations. What has Java to tell us of Japan? This is a survey of patterns among Austronesians, and one can’t guarantee that they’ll be generalizable. Despite the ecological variation across these societies, it is notable that they all had a strong maritime bias. Perhaps continental polities are subject to different dynamics. Additionally, there is some limitation in the level of aggregation and institutional complexity which we can see among Austronesians. Even at its height Majapahit lacked the force-projection power of Rome, Imperial China, or even the Arab Caliphates. As a hypothesis I will hazard to guess that using a broader sample the relaxed unilinear model would be supported even more. Imperial Rome and Han China squeezed their populations much more than Majapahit on the economic margin to support enormous central cultural complexes. Once the interlocking systems of deference and rent-seeking snapped the regression could be extreme.

We can see the utility of this sort of model after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some regions, such as Anatolia, Italy, Spain and southern Gaul, regressed only so much (at most down to the level of complex chiefdoms, but usually down to a looser state-level political structure). On the other hand, Britain and much of the interior of the Balkans seem to have regressed much further and lost all touch with the institutional power of Roman civilization. Anglo-Saxon England had dozens of “kings” when it reemerged into the light of history in the late 6th century. These were basically complex chiefdoms, likely successors to simple chiefdoms, not states. This implies that much of Britain had gone from being part of an empire, a higher order of organization and complexity than a typical state, to a region characterized by tribalism. Something similar happened in the Balkans with the removal of Roman troops with the invasion of the Avars in the late 6th century. Once the region comes back into the historical record most of the Latin-speaking populations are gone, replaced by Slavic tribes under the hegemony of Ugric and Turkic elites (and possibly Iranian, there is some supposition that the Croats and Serbs may originally have been Iranian tribes which were later subsumed by their Slavic vassals, just as the Bulgars later were). Multiple levels of structure had been swept away, and institutions such as organized Christian religion had to be reintroduced later.

Luckily for Dark Age Europe reservoirs of civilization persisted from which institutions could begin the recolonization process. Isolated societies such as the Maya or Angkor seem to have dissolved more fully. A civilization which lasts clearly needs a commonwealth of states.

Citation: Currie, Thomas E., Greenhill, Simon J., Gray, Russell D., Hasegawa, Toshikazu, & Mace, Ruth (2010). Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific Nature : 10.1038/nature09461

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: History, Sociology
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  • bob sykes

    The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a fairly local affair. The Eastern Empire, centered on Constantinople, escaped the Western collapse and made a couple of semi-successful attempts to reconquer the West. The East survived another 1,000 years of continuous, uninterrupted governance before being overrun by the Turks.

  • onur

    The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a fairly local affair.

    I strongly disagree. As in the case of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Western Roman Empire collapsed as a result of invasions from outside (mostly by heathen Germanic tribes in its case). Without these invasions, the Western Roman Empire could weaken but couldn’t collapse.

  • Ketil Tveiten

    onur: Have you read Adrian Goldsworthy’s ‘Fall of the West’? He convincingly argues that the Western Empire collapsed not primarily due to invading tribes, but due to the internal weakness and chaos caused by centuries of civil war. Short version: the army (which, let’s face it, was the basis of Roman institutions) was too busy fighting itself to protect the borders, and with the weakening of imperial authority caused by reorganizations of the power structure intended to help preserve the position of the Emperor, imperial authority slowly faded away and was replaced by local authorities, who gradually assumed greater independence. A good read, you should check it out.

  • onur

    Ketil, I know what you mean, I have read enough of such theses. What I am saying is that without the barbarian invasions the Western Roman Empire would persist even with internal weakenings. Also do not forget that the internal weakenings of the Western Roman Empire were in general strongly related with the barbarian invasions.

  • Erasmussimo

    Let’s look at the problem from the highest possible level and work down. We start with the sun pouring negentropy all over the earth for billions of years. The earth responds by increasing its organizational structures over the course of time: single-celled life, multicellular life, Cambrian explosion, fishies, dinosaurs, mammals, people. We see a steady increase in complexity, punctuated by big mass extinction setbacks from which recoveries are fairly rapid. So at the highest level of organization, we see a clear upward trend in complexity, with occasional setbacks.

    This basic structure is repeated at lower levels (both spatial and temporal), with higher degrees of variability. If we take humanity as the unit of analysis, we see steady increase in complexity with some minor setbacks. China and the Mayans were just fine while Rome was falling. Look even more closely, and we see the same secular upward trend, but with greater variability: Gaul had its ups and downs, became France, had more ups and downs, dominated Western Europe for a while, conquered much of it under Napoleon, then suffered relative decline in complexity even as its absolute level of complexity increased. Look even more closely, at individual towns, and you see even greater variability on top of steady secular increase in complexity.

    Zooming back up to the highest level, the basic driving force is clear: negentropy from the sun. The earth captures a tiny fraction of that negentropy, which results in steady increases in structural complexity.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #6, i agree with your general point, but: . China and the Mayans were just fine while Rome was falling.

    this is false. china famously exhibited a nearly concurrent rise and fall with rome in the form of the han dynasty. i agree with your general observation though even if i think you flubbed that detail.

    i’ll close this thread if you people don’t get specific and add some value. i’m not interested in your opinions. bob sykes’ comment (#1) was basically a bare-assed assertion which seems highly disputable, and i’ve never seen him express sage wisdom on this topic informed by any deep knowledge. i’m not interested if your opinion-farts people.

    here are some books of interest if you want to talk and not fart:
    Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000
    The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
    The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians
    How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower
    The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000
    The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750: AD 150-750

    naturally this is just a sample of the voluminous literature in this area, but i think it gives you some access to the current scholarship (i find book #2 the best btw in terms of dense concision).

    finally, in the general sweep, let’s also remember these issues:

    1 – it looks there are anti-entropic endogenous parameters which weaken pre-modern states over their lives. e.g., elite cohesion. this is explored in peter turchin’s work.

    2 – there are obviously exogenous shocks. barbarian invasions and interactions with other great powers. anglo-saxon england would have had a different trajectory if not for the norman invasion. in the roman context peter heather is making this argument.

    3 – there’s the stochastic element. what if augustus caesar had died of an infectious after the victory at actium? what if one of the antonine emperors before marcus aurelius had had a legitimate son who survived into adulthood? mortality curves were closer to a uniform distribution in the pre-modern period. obviously if institutions are strong, as it was in 3rd century rome, and during much of china’s history, the state can survive a series of short-lived rulers. but i think a series of long-lived rulers with continuity between their reigns probably builds up “capital” stock which can be expended later, and much of this has a random component. the death of constantine iii for example is a case of a an unfortunate random occurrence which may have shifted the parameters in terms of probabilities of whether the western empire would remain robust.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i just noticed that i’ve been reading too much about the late empire. does anyone recommend a good recent book on the high classical empire? i’d prefer something with non-trivial social and cultural history.

  • onur

    My comments were more than personal opinions. With all sincerity, I see no plausible reason for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire other than foreign invasions (by barbarians or other states). Even the rise of nationalism couldn’t collapse it, as the overwhelming majority of its population was speaking the same language: vulgar Latin (under the continuous rule of the Western Roman Empire the various vulgar Latin dialects would probably never emerge as different languages). Maybe Christian reformations could divide it. And the rise of democracy could transform it into a modern republic or constitutional monarchy.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    With all sincerity, I see no plausible reason for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire other than foreign invasions (by barbarians or other states)

    i don’t care about your opinion, you don’t strike me as someone who knows a lot about the topic. so actually offer some data or novel analysis of interest. peter heather would support your contention while adrian goldsworthy would not (his argument is that the size of the armies on paper was far less than their realized strength after the 3rd century troubles). from what i recall ward-perkins tends to see evidence of some incomplete recovery in the 4th century in coin hordes.

    now, to convince me you know something about this topic it won’t suffice to just repeat your sincere opinion. i really don’t care about your opinion on any specific topic, i care about the data and analysis you offer into the record. i’m pretty sure i know a lot more about this period and place than you do so your own assessment without elaboration offers no value add (this naturally is addressed to all commenters who offer me their historical opinions on a topic).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    and onur, don’t take my comments personally. i appreciate your intent. just modulate your methods. i want to make the comments useful to people to form their own informed opinion.

  • onur

    Razib, Goldsworthy’s thesis doesn’t contradict what I am saying. The northern borders of the Roman Empire were very long and hard to defend and have always been under the constant threat of unruly barbarians with occasional invasions. Eastern borders, OTOH, were almost totally shared with one centralist power for most of its history, first with Persia then with the Islamic Caliphate and mostly using buffer states like Armenia and Georgia, so were much more easy to defend and control. And this stark difference in borders shaped both the internal and external conditions of the Western and Eastern Empires in a profound way. A good albeit downscaled comparison with the northern borders of the Western Empire would be the eastern borders of the Eastern Empire after the disappearance of the central authority of the Seljukids of Rum in Islamic-ruled Anatolia with the Mongol invasion, which were relatively long and under the constant threat of ghazis and unruly Turkmen nomads.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the issue about the borders seems plausible, but a few counter points

    1) a “standard model” (which i’m actually skeptical of) is that in fact the eastern border was the difficult one because of a real power, and the rise of sassinid persia, diverted resources from the european borders

    2) the cliometric data is pretty robust that by the 4th century the domains of the eastern empire were far wealthier than those of the west. this is mostly aggregate wealth, though on a per capita basis the eastern provinces may have been marginally more wealthy because they were closer to trade networks which provided goods

    3) as a follow-up #2, the eastern empire routinely bribed barbarians to not attack, and sometimes even bribed them to attack the west in preference to the east. concerted groups of barbarians really had little difficulty in ravaging the whole balkans down to greece if the imperial forces were concentrated to the east

    the main issue is that i think geography is hard to disentangle from economics, insofar as it may be that the reason that the eastern tax base remained robust is that its geographic lines of control prevented as many “breakthroughs” by barbarians.

  • onur

    a “standard model” (which i’m actually skeptical of) is that in fact the eastern border was the difficult one because of a real power, and the rise of sassinid persia, diverted resources from the european borders

    Eastern border of course had its own disadvantages, but I think in the aggregate it was much more advantageous than the northern border.

    the cliometric data is pretty robust that by the 4th century the domains of the eastern empire were far wealthier than those of the west. this is mostly aggregate wealth, though on a per capita basis the eastern provinces may have been marginally more wealthy because they were closer to trade networks which provided goods

    I already acknowledge these. What I am saying is that the conditions in the borders had a big role role in that economic weakness.

    as a follow-up #2, the eastern empire routinely bribed barbarians to not attack, and sometimes even bribed them to attack the west in preference to the east. concerted groups of barbarians really had little difficulty in ravaging the whole balkans down to greece if the imperial forces were concentrated to the east

    The Balkan border was clearly the weak spot of the Eastern Empire, but it was short compared to the northern border of the Western Empire, and Constantinople was very hard to conquer.

    the main issue is that i think geography is hard to disentangle from economics, insofar as it may be that the reason that the eastern tax base remained robust is that its geographic lines of control prevented as many “breakthroughs” by barbarians.

    Economics and geography indeed have a strong interrelationship. Stable borders bring more prosperity and prosperity determines to which border to give priority.

  • onur

    What I am saying is that the conditions in the borders had a big role in that economic weakness.

    I am referring to the Western Empire here.

  • Tom Bri

    Charles Adams, in ‘For Good And Evil, The Impact Of Taxes On The Course Of Civilization’ makes the argument that Western Rome destroyed itself internally via poor tax policy. Citizens of some outer provinces welcomed the barbarians as a lesser evil.

    Razib, a quibble. You said: The reality is that for most of history for most people there was very little change from generation to generation. Malthus reigned supreme. Values were timeless, and quality of life was unchanging…

    From our distant perspective this seems true, but from the local perspective probably not. Read the accounts written by the ancients themselves and all seems in constant flux. Wars, famines, plagues. Life was pretty exciting.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    From our distant perspective this seems true, but from the local perspective probably not. Read the accounts written by the ancients themselves and all seems in constant flux. Wars, famines, plagues. Life was pretty exciting.

    your point taken, but who was doing the writing? :-) a different lot than the average bear.

  • onur

    Charles Adams, in ‘For Good And Evil, The Impact Of Taxes On The Course Of Civilization’ makes the argument that Western Rome destroyed itself internally via poor tax policy. Citizens of some outer provinces welcomed the barbarians as a lesser evil.

    Nothing surprising actually. The Western Empire’s very high military expanses for the protection of its very long and dangerous northern borders from the barbarians returned as heavy tax burdens on its citizens’ shoulders. So if Adams is right, the very source of the problem also becomes its solution, what a diabolic destiny for the Western Empire!

  • Erasmussimo

    Hoo boy, arguments over the reasons for the fall of Rome — not something I want to touch with a ten foot pole. Razib, thanks for correcting my oversight on China — I was a few centuries out of synch there.

    Returning to the larger thesis: I think that there are three basic trends at work:

    1. The accumulating negentropy from the sun. That should produce a linearly increasing degree of complexity in the biosphere.

    2. The improving ability of the biosphere (including humanity) to efficiently capture negentropy from the sun. This increases the growth of complexity from linearity to something with a positive second derivative.

    3. The occurrence of perturbations (meteors, orbital shifts, continental drift, volcanic eruptions, plagues, wars, short-lived heirs to the throne, etc). These perturbations come at random times and with random degrees of severity. Really big ones cause mass extinctions; minor ones cause revolutions (bad harvests in France in the late 1780s, for example). These perturbations punch valleys into the upward-curving progress of complexity, generating setbacks of various magnitudes.

    When we limit our view to human civilization, I don’t see any particular reason why it should be invulnerable to perturbations large enough to destroy it. Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that a species that evolved to fit a hunter-gatherer ecological niche should be capable of maintaining a complex technological civilization indefinitely. Humanity could well wipe itself out, which we humans would regard as an infinitely large catastrophe, but life on earth would keep going from there, and the curve of complexity of the biosphere would simply resume its slow rise.

    The big question that captivates me concerns our ability to generate self-destructive perturbations. I’m not particularly worried about an external perturbation (meteor strike, big volcanic eruption, etc) taking out humanity. The fascinating theoretical question is, can a system of accelerating complexity maintain stability? My gut says that no increasingly complex system can preserve its stability, but I can’t wrap my head around the problem well enough to come up with a rigorous answer to that question.

  • onur

    Typo correction for “The Western Empire’s very high military expanses” in comment #18: The Western Empire’s very high military expenses

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the barbarian groups beyond the limes became progressively more organized and shifted toward larger and more complex political systems over time. that is probably one reason that the western frontier became more of an issue over time. the diffusion of culture across the border meant that roman advantages in that domain (organization) were slowly eroded. arminius, the german who defeated varus at teutoburg, was famously roman trained.

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  • onur

    the barbarian groups beyond the limes became progressively more organized and shifted toward larger and more complex political systems over time. that is probably one reason that the western frontier became more of an issue over time. the diffusion of culture across the border meant that roman advantages in that domain (organization) were slowly eroded.

    True.

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  • Prokaryotes

    About the fail of Rome

    More recently, environmental concerns have become popular, with deforestation and soil erosion proposed as major factors, and destabilizing population decreases due to epidemics such as early cases of bubonic plague and malaria also cited. Global climate changes of 535-536 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_rome

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_changes_of_535-536

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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