Tag Archives: History

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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USA, Beware 2020

Both Nature and New Scientist recently covered the work of Peter Turchin, who suggests, based on prior trends, that the US is in for a new period of political instability peaking around 2020. He finds that historically US instability has peaked about every fifty years:

He also found this 50 years cycle in Roman and French history, but not in Chinese history. This evidence seems sufficient to mildly raise my expectation of instability at that time, relative to what I would have otherwise thought. Turchin also sees a 150 year cycle in six (de-trended) parameters that suggest instability:

This suggests a US peak in the decades surrounding 2040. Other civilizations have had such long waves, but with widely varying periods. This also mildly raises my expectation of instability in that period.

Even so, the strongest trend we see is a long term worldwide decline in such things. So my strongest expectation is for a continued long term decline in instability. But yes, let’s watch out for the US in 2020.

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Inequality /=> Revolt

Famous historical revolutions were not consistently caused by high or rising income inequality:

[French income] inequality during the eighteenth century was large but decreased during the revolutionary period (1790-1815). … When industrialisation began about 1830, inequality increased until sometime in the 1860s. (more)

In 1904, on the eve of military defeat and the 1905 Revolution, Russian income inequality was middling by the standards of that era, and less severe than inequality has become today in such countries as China, the United States, and Russia itself. (more)

In 1774 the American colonies had average incomes exceeding those of the Mother Country, even when slave households are included in the aggregate. … American colonists had much more equal incomes than did households in England and Wales around 1774. Indeed, New England and the Middle Colonies appear to have been more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measureable world. Income inequality rose dramatically between 1774 and 1860, especially in the South. (more)

So why do most people so confidently believe that revolutions were caused by high or rising inequality? I’d guess its because it feels like a nice way to affirm your support for the standard forager value of more equality.

Added 24Sept: OK, I see that the French data isn’t so relevant to my point.

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Fairy Tales Were Cynical

A recent New Yorker article on fairy tales fascinated me (quotes below). Apparently the fairy tales once “told at rural firesides” were for adults, full of sex and violence, and cynical – they did not often affirm common ideals. This stands in sharp contrast to most fiction genres today, especially today’s fairy tales targeted at kids. Why were long ago stories so much more cynical? They remind me of some joke genres, like dead baby jokes, and of the crudeness often found off the record in many close social groups.

Here’s my homo hypocritus explanation. Our forager ancestors evolved intricate capacities to affirm standard ideals when what they said or did might be visible or reported to distant observers, and to coordinate to violate such ideals when they were less visible. Shared private rejection and violation of wider ideals can signal close bonds with associates, and reveal more about ourselves to intimates.

So when stories become more visible, such as by getting published in books, stories had to become more ideal. Similarly, when kids were taught in schools, with a curriculum visible to all, that curriculum had to become more ideal. And as law enforcement has become more visible, it has been held to higher standards.

Today harassment laws make it harder to be very crude and cynical at work, and divorce custody battles punish parents who act this way around their kids. Today, more interactions are governed by officially idealistic norms: teachers around students, doctors & lawyers around clients, etc. What costs do we pay for this panopticon-like suppression of our natural crude/cynical styles? We are probably less able to form very close social groups where we can more clearly see each others’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But what else?

Added 26Aug: Another contributing factor may be that in general our idealism just rises with rising wealth.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Fairy Tales Were Cynical" »

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Is World Government Inevitable?

Several sources lately incline me to think of world (or solar) government as very likely in the long run. First, I read Betrand Russell, in a 1950 essay The Future of Mankind, advocating violence to make a world government:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are:

I. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
II. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
III. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war. …

A world government is desirable. More than half of the Amerian nation, according to a Gallup poll, hold this opinion. But most of its advocates think of it as something to be established by friendly negotiation, and shrink from any suggestion of the use of force. In this I think they are mistaken. I am sure that force, or the threat of force, will be necessary. …

The governments of the English-speaking nations should then offer to all other nations the option of entering into a firm alliance, involving a pooling of military resources and mutual defense against aggression. In the case of hesitant nations, … great inducements, economic and military, should be held out to produce their cooperation. … When the Alliance had acquired sufficient strength, any Great Power still refusing to join should be threatened with outlawry, and, if recalcitrant, should be regarded as a public enemy. The resulting war … (more)

Russell was right that Americans then favored a world government:

In March 1951, nearly half (49%) of Americans thought the United Nations should be strengthened to make it a world government with power to control the armed forces of all nations, including the United States, while 36% thought it should not. (more)

Seems they still favored it in 1993:

In a [1993] telephonic survey financed by the WFA, 58% of 1200 adult American citizens polled thought that to have practical law enforcement at home and abroad, a limited, democratic world government would be essential or helpful (with 35%) disagreeing). For effective enforcement of laws, 66% of those questioned felt there should be a world constitution, more than double the number who disagreed. … 82% of respondents felt the UN Charter should be amended to allow the UN to arrest individuals who commit serious international crimes, and 83% felt that leaders making war on groups within their country should be tried by an International Criminal Court. (more)

In 2007, much of the world also agreed:

A total of 21,890 people were interviewed between July 2006 and March 2007 [in 19 nations: US, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France, Pales. Terr., Israel, Australia, S. Korea, Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Iran.] …

■ Large majorities approve of strengthening the United Nations by giving it the power to have its own standing peacekeeping force, regulate the international arms trade and investigate human rights abuses.
■ Most publics believe the UN Security Council should have the right to authorize military force to address a range of problems, including aggression, terrorism, and genocide. (more)

Finally, the history of China suggests that, once started, “world” government becomes hard to stop:

This study explores the ways in which the Chinese imperial system attained its unparalleled endurance. … I do not pretend to provide a comprehensive answer. … Rather, I shall focus on a single variable, which distinguishes Chinese imperial experience from that of other comparable polities elsewhere, namely, the empire’s exceptional ideological prowess. As I hope to demonstrate, the Chinese empire was an extraordinarily powerful ideological construct, the appeal of which to a variety of political actors enabled its survival even during periods of severe military, economic, and administrative malfunctioning. …

Centuries of internal turmoil that preceded the imperial unification of 221 BCE … were also the most vibrant period in China’s intellectual history. Bewildered by the exacerbating crisis, thinkers of that age sought ways to restore peace and stability. Their practical recommendations varied tremendously; but amid this immense variety there were some points of consensus. Most importantly, thinkers of distinct ideological inclinations unanimously accepted political unification of the entire known civilized world—“All-under-Heaven”—as the only feasible means to put an end to perennial war; and they also agreed that the entire subcelestial realm should be governed by a single omnipotent monarch. These premises of unity and monarchism became the ideological foundation of the future empire, and they were not questioned for millennia. (more)

Even if a world (or solar) government is inevitable, it is still probably best to not start it too early, before we are able to coordinate sufficiently well.

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Schools Are For War

The main reason we had rules to force kids to attend primary school was to make obedient soldier citizens to support their nation in time of war. This effect was even stronger for democracies:

Using data from the last 150 years in a small set of countries, and from the postwar period in a large set of countries, we show that large investments in state primary education systems tend to occur when countries face military rivals or threats from their neighbors. By contrast, we find that democratic transitions are negatively associated with education investments, while the presence of democratic political institutions magnifies the positive effect of military rivalries. …

We study historical panel data on education spending and enrollment – for Europe since the 19th century and a larger set of countries in the postwar period – to assess the correlation between military rivalry (or war risk) and primary education enrollment (or the occurrence of educational reforms). … [Our models] show a positive and significant effect of rivalry on primary enrollment, a negative direct effect of democracy, and a positive and significant interaction term between the two. Overall, our empirical results indicate a causal relationship from rivalry to primary educational enrollment. …

An economic literature … finds robust correlations between past wars and current state capacity in international panel data. … [A study] shows that military rivalry raises fiscal capacity in postcolonial developing states. … [Others] find that democracy does seem to have a systematic influence on top rates of estate taxation, whereas wars with mass mobilizations do significantly raise those rates. …

[Prussia pushed schools] to arouse a moral, religious, and patriotic spirit in the nation, to instill into it again courage, confidence, readiness for every sacrifice. …

[France pushed schools to] teach Frenchmen to be confident of their nation’s superiority … It should … eliminate disruptive conflicts and promote the unity of the classes. … The new teaching program … was … designed to teach the child that it was his duty to defend the fatherland, to shed his blood or die for the commonwealth, to obey the government, to perform military service, to work, learn, pay taxes, and so on.

In Prussia, France and Japan … military defeats and/or perceived military threats appear to have prompted an otherwise reluctant ruling class to invest in mass primary education. …In most countries of the sample a war preceded the educational reform, while a democratic transition rarely occurs before the education rise … Most often, the democratic transition instead takes place *after the education reform period. (more)

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Testing My Growth Model

I have suggested that long run growth can be described as a sequence of exponential growth modes, from primates to foragers to farmers to industry, where mode transitions are similar in their degree of suddenness and growth rate change factors. This model will be tested in the future – it suggests that within a century or so we’ll see a change within five years to a new mode where the economy doubles every month or faster.

But my model can also be tested against the past. Our data on the animal, forager, and early farming eras is pretty poor. My hypothesis suggests that the forager era was one big growth mode similar to the farming or industry eras, with a relatively smooth rate of growth in capacity (even if rare disasters temporarily disrupted the use of that capacity), and that the forager to farming transition has a level of smoothness similar to that of the farming to industry transition.

Contrary to my model, many have suggested there was an important comparable revolution in human behavior around 50,000 years ago. My model predicts that growth accelerated smoothly from around 100,000 years ago to the near full speed farming world of about 5000 years ago, similar to the way growth accelerated from 1600 to 1900.

The latest results seem to support my model:

Back in 2000, a now famous scientific paper called “The Revolution That Wasn’t” argued that the then-conventional wisdom that modern human behavior had erupted in a “creative explosion” about 50,000 years ago in Europe was wrong. Rather, anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks contended that modern behavior, including creativity, has deep and ancient roots, going back some 300,000 years ago in Africa (Science, 15 February 2002, p. 1219).

At a meeting here last month, researchers heard new evidence that human evolution took a gradual, rather than revolutionary, course during two other key junctures in prehistory. A study of ancient stone tools from South Africa concludes that hunters manufactured spears with stone points—a sign of complex behavior—200,000 years earlier than had previously been thought. And new excavations at a 20,000-year-old settlement in Jordan, laden with artifacts typical of much later sites, suggest that the dramatic rise of farming villages in the Near East also had early and deep roots. … Many archaeologists now think that apparent “revolutions” are due to gaps in the record or to behavioral shifts triggered by changing conditions, rather than sudden advances in cognition. What appear to be precociously sophisticated behaviors are really reflections of what prehistoric humans were capable of all along. (more)

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Tube Earth Econ

Imagine someone plans to build a gas station far out in an isolated desert. They plan to sell gas and snacks to the truck drivers who come out to deliver gas and snacks. Want to invest?

No? How about if they also sell gas and snacks to passing explorers, out there to signal toughness? Yes, explorers won’t look as tough if they buy gas and snacks from your station. But if the station can lure enough not-so-tough explorers, maybe you’d want to invest.

How about if they also plan to dig oil wells and an oil refinery to make the gas they sell, and a hothouse farm and food processing factory, to grow food for the snacks they sell? How about if they plan to run all this entirely by robots? This plan would make me even less likely to invest. After all, you’d need even more customers to justify a larger scale operation, and I had doubts about enough explorer customers to justify a simple gas station.

This is my reaction to the recent news that some famous investors will spend millions trying to mine asteroids (see here, here, here). Their first product would be rocket fuel to sell to passing NASA rockets. I’m skeptical that NASA wants to buy enough fuel to cover their costs, and I don’t see a flood of other customers eager for robot space gas stations. This new firm also talks about shipping metals like platinum back to Earth, but that seems even crazier anytime soon.

To explore this general issue, let us imagine Tube Earth. While our Earth is a sphere of rock with a 40,000 km circumference, Tube Earth is a very long cylinder of rock with a circumference 1/6 as large, to give it the same surface gravity as Earth. Tube Earth also rotates 24 hours in a day, and has a sun nearby.  The closest spot on the tube to the sun is its “center,” which has Earth-like average surface temperature and seasonal variation. There would be less local temperature variation, as all nearby parts of a tube get the same sunlight.

A length of this tube about twice Earth’s circumference would have about the same surface area as Earth. Imagine that an area of this size held a mix of land and water similar to Earth’s continents. Imagine also that more such clusters of continents are spread all along this tube, spaced roughly twenty Earth circumferences apart. In between is mostly open ocean, with a few small islands.

The tube slowly gets colder millions of km from its center, as those places are further from it sun. Life is spread all along the tube, but so far humans and civilization have only evolved on one near-center cluster of continents. It would take an old style (~12 knot) sailing ship about 4 years to travel in a straight line from one cluster to another, and it would take a jet airliner about 40 days to fly there. Both would need refueling along the way.

My big question here is: how would history, and economic growth, have played out differently on Tube Earth? With all that land out there to colonize, how much more activity would be dedicated to spreading out across the tube? How far would be the furthest flag, subsistence farming town, and modern industrial city at any one time?

My guess is that Tube Earth would look a lot more like our Earth than most space colonization fans expect. Explorers would not have even reached the nearest other continent cluster until the 1800s, and even now there’d be only a few small colonizes there, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture. A several year shipping time would make it very expensive to import modern equipment, and greatly discourage the shipping of mining minerals or farmed food back to the central cluster. Mostly they’d work harder to get more minerals and food from nearby mines and farms.

By 2010 Tube Earth would be lucky to have one monthly airline flight to the next cluster, and a very expensive but welcomed internet connection. Lots of stories would take place there, and it would offer an escape for well-off religious or political refuges. But overall it wouldn’t matter much, because of its huge transport costs.

The key point to note here is that other continent clusters on a Tube Earth are vastly more hospitable and easier to reach than the nearest asteroids or the Moon are from Earth. And the rest of the solar system is even worse. So if other continent clusters would by now matter little for a Tube Earth, asteroids aren’t going to matter much on Earth for a long time to come.

Added: Karl Smith calls it “Invest for Prestige/Get Conned”

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Keynes’ Forager Future

Suresh Naidu pointed me to a fascinating 1930 essay (excerpts below) by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes on the long term future. Consideration of the far future put Keynes into a very far mode, where he upheld far ideals against near practical constraints. While Keynes accepted that farmer ideals of work, property, and saving for the future were needed to maintain economic growth, he detested such ideals, and looked to a future roughly a century hence when, humanity’s absolute material needs being satisfied, we embraced forager ideals for sharing material goods, living in and enjoying the moment, and just doing what feels right.

Now Keynes did note that humans also seek relative status, but he seemed to assume that humans would coordinate to suppress such urges, and to keep just enough farmer habits to preserve material wealth. In his far idealistic mode, he didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that nations would still compete for relative status, and promote farmer norms for that purpose, or that individuals would still work full time seeking personal relative status.

We are now only eighteen years shy of Keynes’ 2030 forecast date. While there has certainly been a weakening of farmer ideals, especially on fertility, we are far from embracing forager ideals overall. We still work hard for material wealth. Our lower classes have moved furthest, more rejecting marriage, religion, and full-time work, via relying heavily on the sharing of others, and this is considered a big problem. Give us another century of similar economic growth, and this lower class malaise might well infect most everyone. But it is far from clear that this would settle at a stable rich no growth equilibrium, rather than economic and population collapse.

In any case, even we preserve farmer norms enough to support continued growth, material wealth per person will only be high until we find new techs to increase population faster than we increase wealth. While in theory-overconfident far mode, Keynes’ is tempted to see his forager-value future as lasting indefinitely, it would in fact only be temporary. The em transition that I envision within a century or two should quickly return most people (i.e., most ems) to near subsistence income, and put a huge premium on reviving farmer-like norms and ideals. And even if that doesn’t happen, growth must slow in the very long run.

Is my summary fair? Judge for yourself; here are excerpts from Keynes’ essay: Continue reading "Keynes’ Forager Future" »

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