Goldilocks Disruptions

A society’s history of climatic shocks shaped the timing of its adoption of farming. Specifically, as long as climatic disturbances did not lead to a collapse of the underlying resource base, the rate at which foragers were climatically propelled to experiment with their habitats determined the accumulation of tacit knowledge complementary to farming. Thus, differences in climatic volatility across hunter-gatherer societies gave rise to the observed spatial variation in the timing of the adoption of agriculture. ….

Conducting a comprehensive empirical investigation at both cross-country and cross-archaeological site levels, the analysis establishes that, conditional on biogeographic endowments, climatic volatility has a non-monotonic effect on the timing of the transition to agriculture. Farming was adopted earlier in regions characterized by intermediate levels of climatic volatility, with regions subject to either too high or too low intertemporal variability systematically transiting later. Reassuringly, the results hold at different levels of aggregation and using alternative sources of climatic sequences. (more)

For the industrial revolution, the analogous disturbance might have been war and invasion. Were the first adopters of the industrial revolution the places that suffered an intermediate level of war and invasion? Enough to keep folks from getting too comfy in their old ways, but not so much that everything gets destroyed all the time. I’m not sure, but it sounds plausible.

Today the main disruptions are economic; societies rise and fall due to changes in the economic fortunes of particular industries or economic styles. Thus a lesson for the next great revolution might be that it will first benefit the societies that have adapted to dealing with an intermediate level of economic disruption. Which ones are those?

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  • http://www.jamescambias.com/ Cambias

    The “early adopters” of industrialization are usually given as the Midlands region of the UK, New England in the USA, and Wallonia in southern Belgium. The UK experienced essentially no invasion but nearly continuous war in places like America, Spain, India, Flanders, etc. New England had to deal with the British occupation during the first part of the American Revolution, but was not the scene of any large-scale destruction (especially not the Connecticut River Valley, which was the industrial core area). Belgium, on the other hand, went through generations of being the “cockpit of Europe” where bigger countries went to have their wars. Notably, Belgium’s industrial boom came after the defeat of Napoleon.

    So I’d say the evidence is scanty. If war and disruption play a role, it’s certainly not as important as others. War creates a demand for mass-produced goods and standardization, but it’s hard to set up a new factory if your country’s being laid waste.

    • Arch1

       “it’s hard to set up a new factory if your country’s being laid waste”

      ..not to mention keeping existing factories running.  Apologies for lack of reference, but I recall reading that Stalin moved some 1400 factories W->E across Urals during WWII.  The downtime-minimization approach made this memorable:  Roof first, then machines, then walls.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    Full text: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Economics/Papers/2013/2013-3_paper.pdf

    “Due to the unavailability of worldwide prehistoric temperature data, the analysis employs highly spatially disaggregated monthly data between 1900 and 2000 to construct country-level measures of the mean and standard deviation of temperature over the course of the last century. The interpretation of the empirical results is thus based on the identifying assumption that the cross-regional distribution of temperature volatility in the 20th century was not significantly divergent from that which existed prior to the Neolithic Revolution. While this may appear to be a somewhat strong assumption, it is important to note that the spatial distribution of climatic factors is determined in large part by spatial differences in microgeographic characteristics, which remain fairly stationary within a given geological epoch, rather than by global temporal events (e.g., an ice age) that predominantly affect the worldwide temporal distribution of climate.”

    …what.

    I’m getting increasingly skeptical of attempts to explain the origin of agriculture. There’s, what, 6 datapoints? And by this point I must have heard of dozens of distinct explanations. It’s a recipe for overfitting, and reading about this sort of methodology (try predicting Egyptian weather in the Neolithic from the 20th century!) doesn’t help.

    Still, worth noting that Murray’s _Human Accomplishment_ did seem to see a correlation between breakthroughs and war.

  • Elithrion

    “… as long as climatic disturbances did not lead to a collapse of the underlying resource base, the rate at which foragers were climatically propelled to experiment with their habitats determined the accumulation of tacit knowledge complementary to farming.”

    I’m confused about how that’s supposed to work. If the climate is less stable, I’m supposed to be more likely to try returning to the same plants, replanting them, etc? If anything, I can see the argument in the opposite direction more easily – if certain plants give the same produce more consistently I’m more likely to pay attention to them.

  • IMASBA

    “Thus, differences in climatic volatility across hunter-gatherer societies gave rise to the observed spatial variation in the timing of the adoption of agriculture.”
    I’m sure that was part of it, but we have to be honest here: hunter gatherers who considered adopting agriculture did not know public sanitation, human rights, machines, democracy and antibiotics would be invented millennia later. All these hunter gatherers saw was societies around them adopting agriculture and getting shorter, less healthy, less free lives and longer working hours in return. The benefits of agriculture mostly went to the elite (living in luxury, bigger armies to command). I’m convinced many hunter gatherers simply rejected agriculture (though some did adopt raising cattle) because they did not believe an invasion of their territory was very probably and/or their territory was not very suitable to agriculture to begin with. These peoples included the Inuit and the Mongols.

    “For the industrial revolution, the analogous disturbance might have been war and invasion. Were the first adopters of the industrial revolution the places that suffered an intermediate level of war and invasion?”

    More like the places that wanted to bring war and invasion onto others and were in the right position geographically.

    “Thus a lesson for the next great revolution might be that it will first benefit the societies that have adapted to dealing with an intermediate level of economic disruption. Which ones are those?”

    The societies that fit description would actually have the least incentive to change (they’re already doing fine), the previous revolutions were therefore forced on the common people, the question is whether that is still possible (of course the financial elite can force a lot of things these days but they’re the ones profiting the most from the current system, political leaders, who would see sense in another revolution, simply may not have the clout to introduce such revolutions anymore). So yes, a society that is robust will obviously adopt a new system easier, but they must first be convinced to do so.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern