Tag Archives: History

Does Decadence Cause Decay?

Noble gentlemen and ladies in [Japan’s] Heian period (794-1185) were often remarkably promiscuous. … “Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than by any moral principles, and good looks tended to take the place of virtue.” … It was, as all this suggests, a rather effete culture. The aristocratic ideal of male beauty—highly perfumed, moon-faced, smooth-skinned, extravagantly dressed—was close to the feminine ideal. A distinct air of decadence during the peak of the Heian period also suggests the approaching end of a regime, a world, in Genji’s words, “where everything seems to be in a state of decline.”

Less than two hundred years later, the self-obsessed nobility of the Heian court, distracted by the rituals and refinements of palace politics, oblivious of the world outside the capital, and mostly bored out of their minds, were overwhelmed by more vigorous provincial clans, notably the samurai, with their warrior codes and martial ideals. But in Genji’s time, the early eleventh century, the imperial capital (today’s Kyoto) still held sway; anyone unlucky enough to live in the provinces was considered too uncouth to be taken seriously. (more)

This seems a familiar history story, that elite self-indulgence and moral decadence causes social decay and displacement. It contributes to the Hunger Games stories, for example. It also seems a common foundation of conservative thought. But, is it true? I ask because I actually do not know. Has anyone done statistical tests on systematic historical datasets to see if decadence actually causes decay and displacement? I could imagine counter arguments, such as that decadence promotes peace instead of destructive war-mongering. So I’d prefer not to have to rely only on a few anecdotes and plausible intuitions.

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Growth Could Slow

Human history has seen accelerating growth, via a sequence of faster growth modes. First humans grew faster than other primates, then farmers grew faster than foragers, and recently industry has grown faster than farming. Most likely, another even faster growth mode lies ahead. But it is worth remembering that this need not happen. For a very concrete historical analogue, the Cambrian Explosion of multi-cellular life seems to have resulted from an accelerating series of key transitions. But then around 520 million years ago, after life had explored most multi-cellular variations, change slowed way down:

In just a few tens of millions of years – a geological instant – almost every major animal group we know made its first appearance in the fossil record, and the ecology of the planet was transformed forever. …

Scientists have struggled to explain what sparked this sudden burst of innovation. Until recently, most efforts tried to find a single trigger, but over the past year or two, a different explanation has begun to emerge. The Cambrian explosion appears to have been life’s equivalent of the perfect storm. Instead of one trigger, there was a whole array of them amplifying one another to generate a hotbed of animal evolution the likes of which the world has never seen before or since. …

The first sign of multicellular animals is in rocks about 750 million years old, which contain fossilised biomolecules found today only in sponges. Then another 150 million apparently uneventful years passed before the appearance of the Ediacaran fauna. This enigmatic group of multicellular organisms of uncertain affinities to other lifeforms flourished in the oceans up to the beginning of the Cambrian. Then [110 million years later] all hell broke loose. … Studies of “molecular clocks” – which use the gradual accumulation of genetic changes to estimate when particular evolutionary branches diverged – suggest that animal complexity emerged before the Cambrian. …

Two huge ecological innovations that make their debut in the Cambrian fossil record. …The first is the ability to burrow into the sea floor. … The second innovation was predation. … What else were these early creatures waiting for? One intriguing possibility is that they were waiting for fertiliser. Geological evidence suggests that rising sea levels during the Cambrian could have increased erosion, boosting levels of nutrients such as calcium, phosphate and potassium in the oceans. …

Atmospheric oxygen levels crept up gradually. … The crucial threshold seemed to be between 1 and 5 per cent of present oxygen levels. Geochemists’ best guess at when the ancient oceans reached this point is about 550 million years ago – just in time to kick off predation and its resulting ecological feedback. …

Precambrian oceans were full of single-celled algae and bacteria. When these small cells died, they would have started to sink, decomposing quickly as they went – and because decomposition consumes oxygen, this would have kept ocean waters anoxic. Filter-feeding sponges, which evolved sometime before the Ediacaran,then started clearing these cells out of the water column before they died and decomposed. The sponges themselves, being larger, were more likely to be buried in the sediment after death, allowing oxygen to remain in the water. Over time, this would have led ever more of the ocean to become oxygenated. (more)

So it remains possible that growth will slow down now, or after the next transition, even if a new series of accelerating transitions lies far ahead.

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Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

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Philosophy Between The Lines

Seven years ago I raved about a Journal of Politics article by Arthur Melzer that persuaded me that ancient thinkers often wrote “esoterically,” e.g., praising their local religions and rulers on the surface, while expressing their true atheism, rebellion, etc. between the lines. Melzer has just come out with a very well written and persuasive book Philosophy Between The Lines, that greatly elaborates this thesis.

Melzer’s book emphasizes the puzzle that while ancient thinkers were quite open about esotericism, modern thinkers have mostly forgotten it ever existed, and are typically indignantly dismissive when the idea is suggested. Below the fold I give an extended quote on a fascinating transition period in the late 1700s when European intellectuals openly debated how esoteric to be.

While Melzer’s last chapter is on implications of esotericism, he really only talks about how it can somewhat undercut cultural relativism, if we can see intellectuals from different times and places as actually agreeing more on God, politics, etc. Yet he doesn’t mention the most obvious implication, at least to an economist: since esotericism raises the price of reading the ancients, we will likely want to buy less of this product, and pay less attention to what the ancients said. Melzer also doesn’t mention the implications that the rise of direct speech might be in important enabler of the industrial revolution, or that seeing more past esotericism should lead us to expect to find more of it around us today, even if we now officially disapprove of it.

Melzer says that the main point of his book is just to convince us that esotericism actually happened, not that it was good or bad, nor any particular claim about what any particular ancient really meant. But this stance is undermined by the fact that the main bulk of the book focuses on elaborating four good reasons why the ancients might have been esoteric. In contrast, when Melzer talks about why we moderns dislike esotericism, and why esotericism is the usual practice around the world today in non-Western cultures, he mentions many illicit reasons why writers might be esoteric. For example, Melzer quotes An Anthropology of Indirect Communication giving these reasons for such talk:

To avoid giving offence, or, on the contrary, to give offence but with relative impunity; to mitigate embarrassment and save face; to entertain through the manipulation of disguise; for aesthetic pleasure; to maintain harmonious and social relations; to establish relative social status; to exclude from a discourse those not familiar with the conventions of its usage and thereby to strengthen the solidarity of those who are.

But when Melzer talks about why the famous long-revered ancient thinkers might have been esoteric, he gives only reasons that such ancients would have seen as noble: protecting thinkers from society, protecting society from thinkers, teaching students, and promoting social reform.

Now whether the ancients were esoteric for good or bad reasons isn’t very relevant to the empirical claim that they were in fact esoteric, which Melzer says is his main focus. So then why does Melzer focus on if the ancients were esoteric for good reasons? One possible answer is that Melzer actually wants us to like and respect esotericism, not just believe that it existed. Another possible answer is that Melzer sees his readers as biased to see ancient thinkers as good people. If many folks have invested so much in identifying with famous ancient thinkers that they will not accept a claim about those ancients that suggests they were bad people, then to convince such folks of his claim Melzer needs to show that that his claim is quite compatible with those ancients being good people.

Either way, however, Melzer does quite successfully show that the ancients were often and openly esoteric. That promised quote on late 1700s European intellectuals:

Continue reading "Philosophy Between The Lines" »

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Best Combos Are Robust

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a future world of ems would be like, and in doing so I’ve been naturally drawn to a simple common intuitive way to deal with complexity: form best estimates on each variable one at a time, and then adjust each best estimate to take into account the others, until one has a reasonably coherent baseline combination: a set of variable values that each seem reasonable given the others.

I’ve gotten a lot of informal complaints that this approach is badly overconfident, unscientific, and just plain ignorant. Don’t I know that any particular forecasted combo is very unlikely to be realized? Well yes I do know this. But I don’t think critics realize how robust and widely used is this best combo approach.

For example, this is the main approach historians use studying ancient societies. A historian estimating Roman Empire copper trade will typically rely on the best estimates by other experts on Roman population, mine locations, trade routes, travel time, crime rates, lifespans, climate, wages, copper use in jewelry, etc. While such estimates are sometimes based on relatively direct clues about those parameters, historians usually rely more on consistency with other parameter estimates. While they usually acknowledge their uncertainty, and sometimes identify coherent sets of alternative values for small sets of variables, historians mostly build best estimates on the other historians’ best estimates.

As another example, the scheduling of very complex projects, as in construction, is usually done via reference to “baseline schedules,” which specify a best estimate start time, duration, and resource use for each part. While uncertainties are often given for each part, and sophisticated algorithms can take complex uncertainty dependencies into account in constructing this schedule (more here), most attention still focuses on that single best combination schedule.

As a third example, even when people go to all the trouble to set up a full formal joint probability distribution over a complex space, as in a complex Bayesian network, and so would seem to have the least need to crudely avoid complexity by focusing on just one joint state, they still quite commonly want to compute the “most probable explanation”, i.e., that single most likely joint state.

We also robustly use best tentative combinations when solving puzzles like Sudoku, crossword, or jigsaw. In fact, it is hard to think of realistic complex decision or inference problems full of interdependencies where we don’t rely heavily on a few current best guess baseline combinations. Since I’m not willing to believe that we are so badly mistaken in all these areas as to heavily rely on a terribly mistaken method, I have to believe it is a reasonable and robust method. I don’t see why I should hesitate to apply it to future forecasting.

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The Poor Wore Color

A year ago I posted on how ancient buildings are usually depicted as colorless, even though they were brightly colored, and suggested this is because we think about the distant past in far mode. I’ve argued similarly about future images and colors.

We also tend to think of the clothes of the past poor as colorless; here are some typical images:


ColorlessBoysBut not only did the poor smile, they wore a lot of color:

“Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain, preserved for a heartbreaking reason. In 1739, wealthy patrons created the Foundling Hospital, a nice name for a large orphanage, to adopt and take care of abandoned babies being left at churches and on sidewalks across London. This orphanage took in thousands of babies left at its doors from 1739 to 1770, with the hope that mothers would ultimately return to claim their children if their monetary circumstances changed. So when the mothers left their babies, they often attached a small fabric swatch to identify the child. Often, the swatches were cut from the mother’s clothing, and included ribbons, embroidery and brightly colored materials that represent the textiles of the poor in 18th-century Britain.


Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries. The men who chronicled life in London rarely described the attire of poor women; when they did, the colors of smut and sewage seemed to cloud their eyes and words. But the women, by and large illiterate, lived life in florals, needlepoint and intricately dyed fabrics. John Styles, curator of the exhibition, said 18th-century textiles of the poor were rarely preserved, because most peasants sold old fabrics and clothes to be made into paper. …


Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable. But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed. (more)

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French Fertility Fall

Why do we have fewer kids today, even though we are rich? In ancient societies, richer folks usually had more kids than poorer folks. Important clues should be found in the first place where fertility fell lots, France from 1750 to 1850. The fall in fertility seems unrelated to contraception and the fall in infant mortality. England at the time was richer, less agrarian and more urban, yet its fertility didn’t decline until a century later. The French were mostly rural, their farming was primitive, and they had high food prices.

A new history paper offers new clues about this early rural French decline. Within that region, the villages where fertility fell first tended to have less wealth inequality, less correlation of wealth across generations, and wealth more in the form of property relative to cash. Fertility fell first among the rich, and only in those villages; in other villages richer folks still had more kids. The French revolution aided this process by reducing wealth inequality and increasing social mobility.

It seems that in some poor rural French villages, increasing social mobility went with a revolution-aided cultural change in the status game, encouraging families to focus their social ambitions on raising a fewer higher quality kids. High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.

It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward. See also my many posts on fertility. Here are many quotes from that history paper: Continue reading "French Fertility Fall" »

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Imagining Futures Past

Our past can be summarized as a sequence of increasingly fast eras: animals, foragers, farmers, industry. Foragers grew by a factor of about four hundred over two million years, farmers grew by a factor of about two hundred over ten thousand years, and the industry economy has so far grown by a factor of about eight hundred over three hundred years. If this trend continues then before this era grows by another factor of a thousand, our economy should transition to another even faster growing era.

I saw the latest Star Trek movie today. It struck me yet again that such stories, set two centuries in our future, imagine a unlikely continuation of industry era styles, trends, and growth rates. At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period. Yet their cities, homes, workplaces, etc. look quite recognizably industrial, and quite distinct from either farmer or forager era styles. The main ways their world is different from ours is in continuing industry era trends, such as to richer and healthier individuals, and to more centralized government.

While this seems unlikely, it does make sense as a way to engage the audiences of today. But it leads me to wonder: what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?

For example, imagine that the industrial revolution had never happened, and that the farming era had continued for another ten thousand years, leading to more than today’s world population, mostly farming at subsistence incomes within farmer-era social institutions. Oh there’d be a lot of sci/tech advances, just not creating much industry. Perhaps they’d farm the oceans and skies, and have melted the poles. Following farmer era trends, there’d be less violence, and longer term planning horizons. There’d be a lot more thoughtful writings, but without much intellectual specialization having arisen. Towns and firms would also still be small and less specialized.

Or, imagine that the farming revolution had never happened, but that foragers had continued to advance for another two million years, also reaching a population like today. They’d still live in small wandering bands collecting wild food, but in a much wider range of environments. Maybe they’d forage the seas and the skies. Their brains would be bigger, their tools more advanced, and their culture of participatory dance, music, and stories far more elaborate.

These sound like fascinating worlds to imagine, and would make good object lessons as well. Our future may be as different from the world of Star Trek as these imagined worlds would be from our world today.

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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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A History Of Foom

I had occasion recently to review again the causes of the few known historical cases of sudden permanent increases in capacity growth rates in broadly capable systems: humans, farmers, and industry. For each of these transitions, a large number of changes appeared at roughly the same time. The problem is to distinguish the key change that enabled all the other changes.

For humans, it seems that the most proximate cause of faster human than non-human growth was culture – a strong ability to reliably copy the behavior of others allowed useful behaviors to accumulate via a non-genetic path. A strong ritual ability was clearly key. It also helped to have language, to live in large bands friendly with neighboring bands, to cook and travel widely, etc., but these may not have been essential. Chimps are pretty good at culture compared to most animals, just not good enough to support sustained cultural growth.

For farming, it seems to me that the key was the creation of long range trade routes along which domesticated seeds and animals could move. It was the accumulation of domestication innovations that most fundamentally caused the growth in farmers, and it was these long range trade routes that allowed innovations to accumulate so much faster than they had for foragers.

How did farming enable long range trade? Since farmers stay in one place, they are easier to find, and can make more use of heavy physical capital. Higher density living requires less travel distance for trade. But perhaps most important, transferable domesticated seeds and animals embodied innovations directly, without requiring detailed copying of behavior. They were also useful in a rather wide range of environments.

On industry, the first burst of productivity at the start of the industrial revolution was actually in the farming sector, and had little to do with machines. It appears to have come from “amateur scientist” farmers doing lots of little local trials about what worked best, and then communicating them to farmers elsewhere who grew similar crops in similar environments, via “scientific society” like journals and meetings. These specialist networks could spread innovations much faster than could trade in seeds and animals.

Applied to machines, specialist networks could spread innovation even faster, because machine functioning depended even less on local context, and because innovations could be embodied directly in machines without the people who used those machines needing to learn them.

So far, it seems that the main causes of growth rate increases were better ways to share innovations. This suggests that when looking for what might cause future increases in growth rates, we also seek better ways to share innovations.

Whole brain emulations might be seen as allowing mental innovations to be moved more easily, by copying entire minds instead of having one mind train or teach another. Prediction and decision markets might also be seen as better ways to share info about which innovations are likely to be useful where. In what other ways might we dramatically increase our ability to share innovations?

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