For most of my life I have had an implicit directional view of Holocene human culture. And that direction was toward more social complexity and cultural proteanism. Ancient Egypt traversed ~2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the fall of the New Kingdom. But it s rather clear that the cultural distance which separated the Egypt of Ramesses and that of Khufu was smaller than the cultural distance which separates that of the Italy of Berlusconi and the Italy of Augustus. Not only is the pace of change more rapid, but the change seems to tend toward complexity and scale. For most of history most humans were primary producers (or consumers as hunter-gatherers). Today primary producers are only a proportion of the labor force (less than 2% in the USA), and there are whole specialized sectors of secondary producers, service workers, as well as professionals whose duty is to “intermediate” between other sectors and smooth the functioning of society. The machine is more complex than it was, and it has gotten more complex faster and faster.
This is a accurate model as far as it goes, but of late I have started to wonder if simply describing in the most summary terms the transition from point A to Z and omitting the jumps from B to C to … Y may hide a great of the “action” of human historical process. My post “The punctuated equilibrium of culture” was inspired by my deeper reflection about the somewhat staccato character of cultural evolution. Granting that the perception of discontinuity is a function the grain at which we examine a phenomenon, I think one can argue that to a great extent imagining the change of cultural forms as analogous to gradualistic evolution or the smooth descent of a ball toward the center of the earth is deceptive. The theories of history which many pre-modern peoples espoused can give us a window into perception of changes in the past: history was quite often conceived of as cyclical, rising and falling and rising. And yet even in the days of yore there were changes and increases in complexity. The Roman legions of Theodosius the Great in 390 A.D. were more complex institutions than those of Scipio Africanus in 200 B.C. The perception of stasis, and even decline, is due to the fact that the character and complexity of societies did not seem to exhibit direction over the short term toward progress. And that short term can be evaluated over centuries. Far longer than any plausible human lifetime. So while it is all well and fine to focus on the long term trend line, the details of how the trend emerged matter a great deal when attempting to construct a model of the past which can allow us to make robust and rich inferences. The people of the past made robust inferences over any scale of time which mattered to them. The world was nearly as likely to get less rich as more rich.